No sooner had Rep. Tammy Baldwin (at left) announced her entrance into the race for U. S. Senator than Republicans began crowing about what a bad candidate the Democratic congresswoman from Madison would be. Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) called Baldwin “the epitome of what’s wrong in Washington… just a record of increased spending and higher […]

No sooner had Rep. Tammy Baldwin (at left) announced her entrance into the race for U. S. Senator than Republicans began crowing about what a bad candidate the Democratic congresswoman from Madison would be.

Assembly Speaker Jeff Fitzgerald (R-Horicon) called Baldwin “the epitome of what’s wrong in Washington… just a record of increased spending and higher taxes,” in comments to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Republican Mark Neumann, who has announced he will run for the U.S. Senate seat, issued a press release declaring that Baldwin “voted for virtually every proposal from Obama that has led America to the brink of fiscal disaster.“

Republicans have already made it clear they will tag her as a Super Liberal, and they will be helped in that regard by the annual rankings of the National Journal, which ranked Baldwin as tied for most liberal member of Congress in 2010, 25th most liberal in 2009 and 13th most liberal in 2008.

That liberal reputation is enhanced by the fact she was the first openly gay non-incumbent elected to Congress. As Kathleen DeBold, former deputy director of the Gay and Lesbian Victory Fund, once put it (in a 1999 story by The Advocate):  “Tammy Baldwin was elected with a scarlet L emblazoned on her forehead.”

But I wouldn’t count Baldwin out. She has certain strengths that could serve her well in this election. And she has probably selected the best possible time to run for Senator.

For starters, she is likely to be the only Democrat running, giving her a year (since her campaign announcement in September) to raise money and build her support. Meanwhile the Republicans will be engaged in a primary race that could get nasty. Indeed, the conservative Club for Growth, which appears to have stealthy connections to Mark Neumann, has already run ads blasting Neumann’s likely opponent, former Gov. Tommy Thompson, as a closet liberal. 

Baldwin is also running at a time when Wisconsin, as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert has reported, is more polarized regarding its governor than any state in the nation. There are almost no Independents or fence sitters left, and that polarization may heavily color the 2012 election.  Meaning it’s a good year to run as a non-moderate  because the voters are already feeling very polarized.

If Baldwin ends up facing Neumann, that will match the most liberal and most conservative congressional representatives, respectively, from Wisconsin in the last 40 years, as Gilbert has also reported. That could leave them dead even in a purple state like Wisconsin. But Neumann has an edge to him that doesn’t wear well with voters. (He did lose his two runs for statewide office, against Scott Walker in the 2010 primary for governor, and against then-Sen. Russ Feingold in the 1998 campaign.) Baldwin is quite likeable, has a nice way of disarming people about her sexuality and will come off as more personable than Neumann.

If her opponent is Thompson, it would be a quite different race. Thompson could have more appeal for Independents and moderates – even in a very polarized time. But Thompson looks old; he’s aged badly. He hasn’t run for statewide office in 13 years and may seem like an antique to voters. Those close to him worry he may say something stupid in the race. It takes great discipline and tenacity to win a campaign, and Thompson is out of practice and may not want to put in the work. Baldwin, by contrast, is known as a hard-working, disciplined candidate who stays relentlessly on message. If she can make Tommy look out of touch, she could win.

If Fitzgerald emerges from the GOP primary (something Republican insiders don’t expect) or a business candidate with the opaque polish of someone like Ron Johnson pops up, that would make for an entirely different race. But if Baldwin faces Neumann or Thompson, she has a good chance of winning.

And: County Comptroller Craziness

Back in 2002, in the wake of the county pension scandal, I did a story for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigating whether Milwaukee County should have an independent official analyzing the fiscal impact of proposed bills.

“If you had something like this pension plan at the city, I would be the first one to disclose the facts to the mayor and the Common Council,” city Comptroller Wally Morics told me.

The city has had an elected comptroller since 1853. And Morics and his predecessors have often disagreed with the mayor or Common Council or both on proposed policies. The result is more checks and balances.

For some reason, former County Executive Scott Walker never did much to pursue the comptroller idea. Perhaps that’s because he had a county controller (a position now filled by Scott Manske) who reported to the county executive, giving Walker the whip hand. An elected comptroller would be completely independent of both the county exec and county board. 

But new County Executive Chris Abele, along with the Greater Milwaukee Committee, has embraced the idea, and Abele has lobbied heavily – and successfully – for it with the state legislature. Which has enraged county supervisors.

It’s a “crappy bill” that “undermines county government,” declared Supervisor Eyon Biddle Sr. It shows “how absolutely out of touch” Abele is, declared Supervisor John Weishan Jr. It proves that Abele is in bed with business leaders, complained County Board Chairman Lee Holloway.

The three most ironic opponents were supervisors Weishan, Michael Mayo, Sr. and Jim “Luigi” Schmitt. Like all the other supervisors who voted for the disastrous 2000 pension plan, they pled ignorance, saying they had been assured by the administration of then-County Executive Tom Ament it was cost neutral. An elected comptroller could have given them an independent analysis, yet all three supervisors oppose this proposal.

Supervisor Gerry Broderick and others argued the plan would “politicize” the position. But why is an elected comptroller any more political than a controller who works for an elected county exec?

Biddle calls it an “unfunded mandate,” which is probably the best argument I heard: the salary will add some cost for the county, but it seems a small price to pay to prevent another pension scandal.

Broderick notes that he and other supervisors were elected as reformers to change the system and have done their best to do so. But they have only been able to change the system going forward; benefits awarded in the past have largely stayed in place, given the strong legal protections for pension recipients. And so the county is paying hundreds of millions to veteran county employees, who are retiring with lump sum payments of $500,000, $800,000, even $1 million – plus a generous monthly pension for life.

Meanwhile, those employees hired since 1982 have been hammered with wage freezes, furloughs and benefits givebacks, as the financially-strapped county is forced to make cutbacks. The county parks have deteriorated for lack of funding. The county transit system has been cut back mercilessly, leaving less service for people without cars. The county courthouse has actually smelled at times because trash wasn’t getting picked up promptly. And perhaps most obscene, the pension’s outrageous costs are being shouldered by county property taxpayers, including homeowners who’ve lost their jobs, senior citizens struggling to get by and low-income tenants who see the tax passed on to them in the form of higher rent. All are forced to help pay for the lavish pensions of hundreds of county insiders.

The proposal to create an elected comptroller is a systematic reform that intends to make sure such a plan is never passed again. It is not aimed at the current board members (though in the case of Weishan, Schmitt and Mayo, it certainly could be) but like all systematic reforms is meant to endure for decades, as it has in the city of Milwaukee. The fact that 13 supervisors could oppose this plan speaks volumes not about Abele, but about how out of touch these board members are.

The Buzz

-Mr. Real Estate Baron: In his days in Washington, D.C., while serving as Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tommy Thompson managed to “flip” four residential townhouses, buying and then selling quickly for a profit of $143,000, as the Washington Post has reported.

-And the Sports Nut assures us that despite rumors to the contrary, Marquette basketball coach Buzz Williams does not have his eye on a better job at a big-time college. 

-And Pressroom Buzz offers the latest on the battle between the police and the press.