In November 1979, I was just five months out of high school and already on a career path toward what one district attorney would later characterize as a life of crime. My offense: I was a card-carrying member of the state Senate Republican Caucus staff.
I was working in a “terrorist training ground of partisan politics,” as one prominent lobbyist would describe it. But I was in good company. From the mid-1970s on, nearly every notable state politician in Wisconsin was involved in a system where taxpayer-paid staff campaigned on state time, with the knowledge of the media and good-government watchdogs. But four years ago, the climate in Madison suddenly changed, triggering felony charges against current and former legislators and one former staff member. Their trials began this fall.
It’s still a bit confusing to look back at my apparently nefarious doings. Just how did I become an evildoer? Just when did right become wrong? Those questions naturally arise as I consider my days of crime in the capitol.
My story begins in 1979 when I met state Sen. David G. Berger (D-Milwaukee) at St. Margaret Mary. It seemed an innocent enough meeting. The church was a Northwest Side Catholic parish where I practically grew up. The pastor was the legendary Father Raymond Vint. A former World War II chaplain, he served with General George Patton, although I suspect Rev. Vint was tougher and more conservative.
The neighborhood was blue-collar and middle-class. Dad was a union meat cutter for Pick ’n Save. Mom worked in the housewares department at Marshall Field’s. They were proud of their home, possessions and kids – in that order. I grew up in the Wonder Years.
My path to crime was an attraction to politics. In high school, I’d skip class and take the bus Downtown to watch the County Board, Common Council or Circuit Court Judge Christ Seraphim. It was drama, humor, parody and irony all rolled into one.
I got so hooked I called Berger and asked for help getting a legislative internship. The next Tuesday, I was on a bus to Madison. The Legislature was in session, and many of the passengers were politicians, scanning the Milwaukee Sentinel, sipping coffee and swapping stories. I was fascinated.
Stepping off of the bus, I felt like I was in Washington, D.C. I had never been to Capital City, and the majesty of the dome, columns and statuary was spellbinding. I followed the politicos into what seemed like heaven and navigated my way to 329 South for my first day as an intern for David G. Berger, state senator for the 5th District. Non-paid, of course.
Berger had joined the state Assembly in 1970 and jumped to the Senate in 1974. He was witty, smart and cocky. Known for his flamboyant style, he might show up at the Capitol in Scottish knickers, sporting a Sherlock Holmes cap, or decked out in an all-white suit, shirt, tie, belt and shoes.
He’d made a name for himself taking a mundane chairmanship of the Joint Committee for the Review of Administrative Rules and transforming it into a feared watchdog that sank its claws into every department of government. Soon the glib Berger was coined King David, while his close friend, Assembly Speaker Ed Jackamonis, was referred to as Prince Edward.
I was an apprentice, learning a trade. Berger would include his young charges in most meetings and explain in detail the who, what and why of politics. He was a genius at policy and politicking. I was living a Forrest Gump existence. I felt like a voyeur of the political scene, and sometimes, just a voyeur.
My boss, you see, had well-documented personal issues. He was arrested in Wauwatosa’s Underwood Parkway, a.k.a. “Underwear Parkway,” for exposing himself to a male undercover Sheriff’s deputy. This might explain why some of our staff meetings were in the steam room across the street at the Madison Athletic Club. Several other Democratic legislators of that time left office in disgrace. Sen. Monroe Swan (D-Milwaukee) was imprisoned for taking money from a federal program. Sen. Peter Bear (D-Madison) fled the country to escape drug dealers. Rep. Walter Ward (D-Milwaukee) was alleged to have assaulted a woman staffer, similar to the allegations against Rep. Richard Pabst (D-Milwaukee).
For the next several months, I made the trek to Madison several times a week, while working a job at a photo store in Milwaukee. I attended the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee part time, where my favorite lecturers were political science professor John F. Bibby and former legislator Dennis Conta. From them, I learned that starched shirts, repp ties and cuffed pants were the uniform of a professional politician. To this day, I emulate them.
There was also much to learn from historic figures then active in the Capitol. Senate Majority Leader William A. Bablitch (D-Stevens Point) was a moderate voice of reason who went on to serve on the state Supreme Court. Assembly Minority Leader John C. Shabaz (R-New Berlin) became a federal judge, as did state Sen. Lynn S. Adelman (D-New Berlin). Assistant Minority Leader Tommy G. Thompson (R-Elroy) rose to become Wisconsin’s longest-serving governor and U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. Senators Gerald D. Kleczka (D-Milwaukee) and James P. Moody (D-Milwaukee) and Rep. Steve Gunderson (R-Osseo) all were elected members of Congress. Rep. John O. Norquist (D-Milwaukee) became a four-term mayor in Milwaukee, while Rep. David T. Prosser (R-Appleton) became the first Republican Assembly speaker in dec-ades and then a state Supreme Court justice. Rep. Thomas A. Loftus (D-Sun Prairie) rose to Assembly speaker and then U.S. Ambassador to Norway.
I was learning and changing. In the glow of the 1980 presidential primary victory for Ronald Reagan, I became attracted to the Republican Party. Jimmy Carter, U.S. hostages in Iran and the weirdness of some legislative Democrats led me to switch parties.
In fall of 1980, Republican Lt. Gov. Russell Olson’s then chief of staff, Diane Harmelink, gave me the phone number for GOP wunderkind Todd Robert Murphy. Murphy was Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus’ liaison to the Legislature. Young, brash and full of nervous energy, Murphy had a reputation as a street-smart campaigner, exactly the type of weapon former Congressman Robert W. Kasten needed to attract blue-collar votes in Milwaukee if he was to win the U.S. Senate seat from incumbent Democrat Gaylord Nelson.
Murphy was hired by the Kasten campaign and in turn hired me. The job was nothing fancy or glamorous. We worked out of a former auto dealership in West Allis, where Murphy organized neighborhood literature drops, yard sign deliveries and plant gate visits. He targeted conservative voters and supervised a cadre of workers.
For me, it was a paid job in politics – 50 bucks a week. I had made the big time. I worked alongside two political newcomers, Robert Dennik, who is now Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker’s economic and community development director, and Joseph Rice, now a county supervisor.
After Kasten’s upset victory, Murphy circulated my limited résumé around the Capitol. On January 20, 1981, I received a letter from James T. Murphy, deputy director of the Senate Republican Caucus staff, stating, “A screening committee has carefully reviewed your educational qualifications and/or related work experiences, and you have been selected for a personal interview.” I was just 19 years old with few college credits. But I did demonstrate that I could lit-drop, put up 4-by-8 signs and work like a dog for virtually no salary. Just what the Senate needed.
I met Lance B. Jones, Senate Republican Caucus director, for lunch at the Madison Club, two blocks from the Capitol. He was a right-wing stalwart who had an autographed picture of G. Gordon Liddy by his desk, and when the mood hit would play the theme from the movie Patton from a tape recorder in his drawer (the tape was labeled “LBJs favorite hits”). I was hired as a legislative assistant at $635 per month. I received an official employee identification card personally signed by Senate President Fred Risser (D-Madison) and Secretary of State Vel Phillips and embossed with the Great Seal of the State of Wisconsin. Pretty heady stuff for a butcher’s kid from St. Margaret Mary.
The Senate Republican Caucus staff office included about eight desks in one large room and another bigger room with a conference table where GOP senators would meet. The room had a soundproof booth for the senators to record “beepers,” quick interviews for radio stations back home. The office, located just off the elaborate Senate chambers, was basic: Drab-green walls, cheap commercial carpeting, no air-conditioning and uncontrollable steam heat.
The office tabernacle was the coffeemaker, which made my workplace the nerve center of operations. For a buck or so per month, staffers and legislators could drink all they wanted without paying by the cup from John, the blind proprietor of the basement coffee shop. He always had bad jokes, dirty hands, a cigarette on his lips and a cheap-looking blonde keeping him company.
The staff included Jones (director), Jim Murphy (deputy director), Frank Wright (communications specialist), two assistants, two researchers and a receptionist/secretary. Wright was a one-armed man (legend has it he blew it off trying to commit suicide with dynamite) who had been convicted of molesting two teen boys back in 1969. His desk was next to mine. He was a huge man who sweated profusely, drank ice water constantly and cleaned his ears with his car keys. A former radio announcer, he was “the voice” of the Republican Senate who interviewed GOP senators for their weekly “Capitol Conversations,” which ran on some radio stations.
The caucus staff did do some policy-oriented work. When the Senate was in session, the staff wrote memos detailing the day’s bills, prepared amendments and monitored roll call votes. During the budget session, the staff worked nearly around the clock, attending all meetings of the Joint Finance Committee and summarizing them for Republican senators, dictating information into a machine that I am sure is now in a museum.
Other duties were politically oriented. The caucus was the media machine for legislators, handling press releases, speeches, photos, newsletters, ghost-written commentaries and just about anything needed to remind voters of the fine job their legislator was doing.
Caucus staff also tape-recorded legislative sessions and identified comments that could be damaging to Democrats and flattering to Republicans. We also kept track of every important roll call vote for use in campaigns to bolster Republicans and injure Democrats. The votes could also be shared with special-interest groups to help with fundraising.
The four partisan caucuses (each party had one in both the Assembly and Senate) were an outgrowth of a 1970s study by the Ford Foundation. The caucuses were supposed to provide additional research and resources to legislators, making them less dependent on information provided by lobbyists and special interests.
Good government was the goal, but the separation of policy and politics was not that easy, and caucus staff soon became involved in campaign-related work. Did the media disapprove? Not exactly. A 1972 story in the Sheboygan Press entitled “Administrative Aides Busy Politicking” began by saying, “Wisconsin legislators up for re-election this fall have a jim-dandy work force – taxpayer paid – to serve them. A gaggle of administrative aides, drawing monthly salaries ranging from $350 for part-time service to over $1,000 a month, are available to do research, run errands, write speeches, advise on election campaign strategy.”
In 1975, a Capitol Times editorial supported an effort by the state Ethics Board to have Roth Judd, its executive director, ask the State Elections Board to seek an interpretation of whether legislative aides could do partisan activities on state time. The paper hoped this would “prohibit the more flagrant examples of partisanship” but conceded “it will not be an easy task. The relationship between the lawmakers and the taxpayer-financed staff makes it difficult to separate purely legislative duties from partisan duties.”
Well-known Capitol reporter and future Milwaukee Journal Sentinel stalwart Eldon Knoche wrote in a 1975 column on the same subject: “Since few speeches written by aides delivered by legislators are totally without political impact, the problem is how political a speech must be before it’s officially termed political. The answer’s hard to grasp, sort of like squeezing JELL-O.”
In 1979, the caucus system was strengthened when the Legislature passed and Gov. Dreyfus signed a law creating four political “legislative campaign committees,” or LCCs, for each party in both the Assembly and Senate. The LCCs were to have all of the powers of political parties and, by definition, could make or accept donations to political campaigns.
The law neither authorized nor prohibited legislative aides from working on state time for the LCCs, but that soon became a common practice, one endorsed by the watchdog Common Cause in Wisconsin. A 1986 study by the group noted approvingly that the LCCs are “involved in fundraising activities and media campaigns” and “assist with candidate training workshops and with candidate recruitment or to provide political information.” Generally, the study noted, this work is done by “legislative staffers, either currently on the state payroll or on leave from their legislative jobs.”
Common Cause, in fact, endorsed the use of Capitol offices for campaign-related functions by the Senate Democratic Campaign Committee. “It is hard to justify the elaborate and expensive dinner meetings held by the SDCC,” Common Cause noted, “especially since the senators have comfortable, private meeting quarters in the Capitol.” Today, the Common Cause Web site pillories legislators for even thinking partisan thoughts in the Capitol building.
The advent of LCCs helped speed the demise of the old political parties, as volunteer workers were replaced by taxpayer-paid legislators and their aides. By the early 1980s, the culture in the Capitol was clear: Campaigning on state time and within legislative offices was not only accepted, it was expected.
In this new era, both parties looked to maximize politicking by legislative staff. In 1981, a new Senate Republican Caucus director was brought in, who pushed us to create memos highlighting partisan opportunities and including more opposition research.
Our computer capabilities were nonexistent. The machine of choice was an IBM Selectric typewriter. Without correction tape, White-Out was the only option for mistakes. Our graphic arts capabilities were basically cut-and-paste and rub-on letters. The camera was an old Pentax 35mm. But every weapon, such as we had, was marshaled for political warfare.
As the 1982 elections drew closer, staff was assigned to handle several races. Some were sent to individual campaigns and would be on the road, living out of a suitcase for months. Others, like me, were assigned three or four campaigns and worked out of our Capitol office.
Those on the campaign trail stayed on the state payroll as long as possible, utilizing “comp” time – hours owed from weeks a person worked more than 40 hours during the previous year. Comp time records back then were nearly nonexistent. It was a conveniently flexible system.
Parallel to the legislative races was the top ticket: Republican Gov. Lee Sherman Dreyfus was a popular incumbent facing a well-organized Democratic machine in a poor economy. Todd Robert Murphy was tapped as Dreyfus’ campaign manager and was working from the same location in West Allis he used to help elect now U.S. Senator Robert W. Kasten.
The Dreyfus campaign needed “targeting materials” – a mathematical analysis of prior races to determine voting patterns. Campaign managers use the data to find their base of support and mine for likely votes. Murphy asked me to put the material together, and the Republican Caucus director approved the request.
The rationale was that a strong run by Dreyfus would create coattails for legislative candidates. The theory was sound, except that Dreyfus pulled out of the race in the 11th hour. The several-hundred-page handwritten document I created was eventually used by other candidates in the gubernatorial primary, but without the incumbent, Republicans would ultimately lose the governor‘s race to Democrat Tony Earl.
Still, control of the Legislature was up for grabs. Senate and Assembly Democratic and Republican leaders depended on their caucus staffs. It was common for campaign strategy meetings to be held in the caucus offices, which were the heart of operations.
From the time nomination papers were submitted in the summer of 1982 until Election Day November 2, nearly every hour by caucus staff was spent campaigning: writing issue papers, prepping candidates for endorsement interviews, editing brochures, doing opposition research, attending campaign briefings, pounding yard signs, stuffing envelopes. Caucus staff also organized campaign work for legislative aides whose bosses were not up for election that year.
For the primary election in the 11th State Senate District between State Rep. John M. Alberts and Mac Davis, the son of former U.S. Rep. Glenn Davis, a young Harvard graduate student named Scott Jensen was proving an asset to the Davis campaign. Jensen, the future Assembly speaker, was taught early on the importance of campaign mechanics. Davis would tell supporters how his youthful assistant wanted to develop economic policy and comprehensive position papers. “That’s fine,” Davis would tell Jensen, “but not until you’re done putting up 4-by-8s.” Davis easily won the primary.
As the election drew nearer, it was clear there were two battlegrounds, one being the 27th Senate District, the race was between 82-year-old incumbent Sen. Everett V. “Cy” Bidwell and young upstart Russell D. Feingold, a Rhodes Scholar and Harvard Law School graduate. The other battle was fought in Eau Claire for the 31st Senate District.
Both battles were fought on the ground with yard signs, lit drops and knock-and-drops. You would show up at the office, get your marching orders and hit the road, often encountering opposing caucus staff doing the same thing. Back then, the Democrats held the majority in both houses, which gave them a built-in group of lit droppers called the Sergeant At Arms staff – young college students who ran errands for legislators and manned the door at committee hearings.
The media used the caucus staffs as their source for campaign updates, handicapping races and background information on candidates. On election night, reporters camped out in the caucus meeting rooms since staff also tallied vote totals in every county for every race.
In 1982, Republicans missed gaining control of the Senate by less than 200 votes cast in two elections. Democrat Russ Feingold won election by only 30 votes, while 170 votes decided the race in Eau Claire.
The day after the election, as I sat at my desk at 7 a.m., the phone rang. It was Gov. Dreyfus. He wanted the details of the losses and knew he could get them from caucus staff. I could hear the dejection in his tone. Had Dreyfus not dropped out, Terry Kohler would not have been the GOP candidate, and win or lose, Dreyfus’ coattails would have been enough to give Republicans their first legislative majority in more than a decade. That same day, caucus workers and legislative aides fanned out across the two key Senate districts to prepare for and witness any upcoming recounts. But the Democrat victories were not overturned.
In 1983, I became the deputy director of the caucus, then left that summer to join the staff of Sen. Rod Johnston (R-Glendale). Johnston, with his Hollywood good looks, Naval Academy background and gubernatorial aspirations, was challenged by Democratic Rep. Barbara Ulichny. For a year and a half, my job was to beat Ulichny and position Johnston for the Republican primary against Rep. Tommy Thompson – all on state time. But it wasn’t in the cards. Ulichny upset Johnston.
After 1984, I joined the staff of Sen. Mac Davis. Davis was active with the Senate legislative campaign committee, so I helped out whenever possible. Also helping were Thomas Storm, the new director of the Senate Republican Caucus staff. Storm is now district attorney for Fond du Lac County. Interestingly, another well-known DA and candidate for attorney general, Paul Bucher, maintained the LCC’s books when he was an aide to former state Sen. and future U.S. Small Business Administrator Susan S. Engeleiter.
In 1987, I left the Legislature and began a career in public relations and lobbying. The skills I learned at that “terrorist training camp” nearly 25 years ago still serve me today. And as I worked the halls of the Capitol, I could see little change in how legislative and caucus staff were used, other than the use of more sophisticated computers and graphics.
Every five years or so, a media report might raise questions about the use of legislative staff for campaign-related work. But nothing would change. Then, in 2000, a former caucus staff member went to the media and ratted on the system, triggering a series of investigative stories in the Wisconsin State Journal. The reporters found that “the caucuses operate as secret campaign machines,” which was nothing new. Later stories alleged that the Assembly Republican Caucus destroyed or hid campaign documents to keep from turning them over to the paper. The Ethics Board, still run by Roth Judd, told the paper that it was illegal for lawmakers and their aides to engage in campaign activity using “state supplies, services or facilities not available to all citizens.”
The articles triggered several investigations, and in 2001, a settlement agreement with the Wisconsin State Elections Board and Ethics Board banned the caucus staff from existence and created new regulations preventing legislators and staff from using state resources for campaign activities.
In 2002, Dane County District Attorney Brian Blanchard charged two Republicans, then Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and Senate Majority Leader Steven Foti, and one Democrat, then Sen. Brian Burke, with felonies. Burke has already pleaded guilty. Blanchard also charged Republican Rep. Bonnie Ladwig with a misdemeanor. Democrat and then Senate Minority Leader Chuck Chvala was charged with a felony by Milwaukee County District Attorney E. Michael McCann.
Some would argue that these politicians should and must be prosecuted, going strictly by the letter of the law. Common Cause, which once defended the system, now has different leadership and is repulsed by such activities. The caucuses “embodied all that is wrong with Wisconsin’s once proud, clean and progressive state government,” the organization has declared.
But I can’t help putting myself in the defendants‘ shoes. Their crime, it seems to me, was to oversee the kind of campaign activities that the media, watchdog groups and government had known about and often approved of since the 1970s. These “criminals” were part of a system that was assisted and relied on by every one of those historic political figures I met when I walked into the Capitol in 1979: future governors, congressmen, federal and Supreme Court justices, U.S. senators, mayors and me. All felons.
Craig Peterson, chief executive of Zigman Joseph Stephenson, is a veteran lobbyist who served as a legislative aide from 1979-1987.