This article originally appeared in the May 2011 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.
Whispered conspiracy theories nipped at the heels of January’s surprise announcement that Journal Sentinel editorial page editor O. Ricardo Pimentel was stepping down to write a column. “There is a story here and the bodies are still warm,” a confident reader assured Pressroom.
Was he ditched for being too liberal? Pimentel’s prior work as an Arizona Republic columnist and his Quick Hits at the JS suggested a harder edge than the sometimes mushy centrism of the paper’s editorial page. His new column’s left hooks at Gov. Scott Walker – whom the paper endorsed last fall – cemented the image.
“Who is the real Scott Walker?” Pimentel asked after the governor’s phone conversation with a blogger posing as a wealthy campaign contributor. “The one who bills himself as an eminently reasonable populist? Or the one who smirks privately with his monied enablers? Both Walkers owe Wisconsin an apology.”
But Pimentel tells Pressroom he wasn’t pushed. “I just wanted to do something different,” he says. “I wanted to write a column again. I wanted to write with my voice. I missed it a whole lot.”
Still, the timing was odd. The column and Pimentel’s replacement by his more conservative deputy, David Haynes, were announced late on a Friday afternoon, one short week after the usual new year’s reintroduction of the editorial board to readers and summary of the paper’s agenda. The move was so sudden that by mid-March, the paper’s website hadn’t quite caught up: Editor Marty Kaiser's bio still called Pimentel the editorial page editor.
Some saw foreshadowing in the fall endorsement of Walker, as Haynes did the subsequent TV and radio interviews. (Pimentel declines to say whether he voted for Walker when the editorial board made its endorsement decision.)
But JS insiders confirm Pimentel’s more benign narrative. His desire to write more hasn’t been a secret to colleagues.
So why the perception that a putsch occurred? Pimentel concedes this may reflect “the perception that I’m a far-left radical who was not in sync with the board.” But, he continues, the stances the board took while he was editor were “with my full participation.”
With two columns a week that demand “reporting and sorting out the facts” as well as a companion blog, he’ll stay busy. Pimentel remains on the editorial board – “I like the collegiality, and sometimes, someone else’s views make you sort of rethink your own” – and still writes editorials.
But his column is already a strong counterweight to the paper’s most policy-oriented columnist, conservative Patrick McIlheran.
A full-throated liberal, Pimentel the columnist is no mealy-mouth – but also isn’t very surprising. He says he hopes to avoid being predictable, but acknowledges he might be. “I’m a big believer in social justice, with a very broad umbrella that includes people who are the most vulnerable among us.”
A California native and child of Mexican immigrants, Pimentel says he grew up with what he wryly calls “the illegal immigrant work ethic.” That meant “learning early that, if you don’t have the skills or info you need, hustle and get them.” Using newspapers, his father taught himself to read and write in two languages – and passed on to Pimentel a love for the written word. “I noticed early that people like my parents were seldom in the newspaper, and when they were, it was as victims or suspects. I’ve tried to bring a little more balance wherever I’ve worked.”
Pimentel served in the Navy, then worked for newspapers in California and Arizona, and published two novels about Latinos in the Southwest. His columns for The Arizona Republic were nationally syndicated and emphasized Latino affairs, but Pimentel promises to write more broadly. So far, he certainly has.
After the JS hired him in 2004, Pimentel showed a willingness to contest the emphasis of some of the paper’s news stories, which were guided by Managing Editor George Stanley. One example: stories used to play up the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District’s dumping of sewage during big storms – feeding an erroneous image that the Deep Tunnel had failed. Pimentel’s editorial page did its own reporting and pointed out the facts of its success.
Under Pimentel’s oversight, the Sunday Crossroads section has also featured stories on subjects such as Waukesha County’s bid for Lake Michigan water and a less-than-enthusiastic study of the Milwaukee school voucher program. Both countered – arguably even corrected – the news side’s spin.
Before joining the editorial page, Haynes (who declined comment, saying his introductory editorial spoke for him) was deputy to Stanley when the latter was JS business editor. So whether editorials will still zig when news pages zag bears watching.
Pimentel, meanwhile, says he didn’t expect to spend so much ink in his new column on the polarizing governor. Not that he minds. “I’m loving it. The timing couldn’t have been better.”