In Dubious Battle

illustration by Michael Waraksa John Torphy is a Zelig kind of guy. He’s one of those witnesses to history whose face is in the crowd at every bill-signing and every shovel-turning. Torphy worked 29 jobs in 41 years, including tours as a Peace Corps program director in Latin America and deputy mayor in San Francisco. In Wisconsin, he was one of those permanent insiders who served governors from both parties: as budget director for Pat Lucey, secretary of administration for Marty Schreiber, deputy insurance commissioner for Lee Dreyfus, deputy Health and Social Services secretary for Tony Earl, and head of…

illustration by Michael Waraksa

John Torphy is a Zelig kind of guy. He’s one of those witnesses to history whose face is in the crowd at every bill-signing and every shovel-turning.

Torphy worked 29 jobs in 41 years, including tours as a Peace Corps program director in Latin America and deputy mayor in San Francisco. In Wisconsin, he was one of those permanent insiders who served governors from both parties: as budget director for Pat Lucey, secretary of administration for Marty Schreiber, deputy insurance commissioner for Lee Dreyfus, deputy Health and Social Services secretary for Tony Earl, and head of the state Division of Health for Tommy Thompson. He finished as a UW-Madison vice chancellor under Donna Shalala.

Now 69, Torphy tells a great story about how Tommy and Shalala teamed up – against all odds – in the early 1990s to create a new funding model for the University of Wisconsin System. At the time, new classroom and laboratory construction had been delayed for years on the Madison campus due to mounting debt pressures and competing priorities for state funding, and Shalala was frustrated.

“She was not going to stay at Wisconsin forever. It was a stepping stone to something bigger,” Torphy says. “So she wanted to act quickly.” (Indeed, Shalala left to run Health and Human Services for President Bill Clinton in 1993.)

“She realized there wasn’t going to be a lot of state money out there,” Torphy recalls of their conversations. “And she realized Thompson was moving into a second term, when all governors begin thinking about their legacy.”

What better way to burnish that legacy than building up the state’s great public university? To make this doubly seductive, Shalala hatched an ingenious proposal: For the first time ever, donations from private contributors would match – on a dollar-to-dollar and sometimes two-to-one basis – state funds for construction.

Torphy suspects Shalala met privately with Thompson to pitch the plan. “She had atendency to do this, to go one-on-one with people. She was as good as anyone I ever saw,” he says. “She had brilliant intuition as to when people are willing to buy in and what the key compromise is.”

Shalala got her deal with Thompson and then they sold it to the Legislature. The waves of new campus construction that followed have been dazzling. The WISTAR, HealthStar and now BioStar building programs have kept UW-Madison in the front rank of world-class research universities, providing a home for, among others, famed stem cell scientist James Thomson at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery. The tab? A stunning $1 billion.

So how were Thompson and Shalala able to work this magic? “Why, they’re just pols,” Torphy says, as if this is obvious.

“But they’re all pols at the Capitol,” I protest.

“No, they’re not,” he says.

Hmm. Now that’s a thought worthy of consideration. The distinction between politicians and mere ideologues is something a bipartisan insider like Torphy knows well, and goes to the heart of a story rating the current crop of legislators. Today, many observers argue, the Legislature is cursed with ideologues who don’t care much about making policy. “They’re crazy,” Torphy says. “It’s like Congress with the far left and far right. These are people whose ideology is their political style. That’s how they’ve gotten where they are.”

Shalala may have been on the left and Thompson on the right, Torphy says, but they were policy-makers who saw the funding deal as addressing their separate needs: Shalala could demonstrate her leadership by launching a massive campus construction plan; Thompson could polish his legacy as a research-focused governor while shifting state spending to private contributors.

“They knew it was a compromise that would get support on both the Capitol and on the campus,” Torphy says. “They knew they could cut a deal. That’s what’s missing today.”

Torphy spent many excruciatingly long nights at the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee, where lawmakers from both parties would finally forge effective compromises. “That just isn’t happening anymore. That’s one reason why I left.”

Torphy (who did not participate in our survey) is among many Capitol veterans who castigate the current Legislature as a deeply dysfunctional place and lament the days when big, sweeping policy changes were engineered by Govs. Pat Lucey (1971-1977) and Thompson (1987 to 2001).

Lucey modernized school aid by making equity a key factor for helping poorer districts. He merged the two ever-competitive university systems, and eliminated the machinery and equipment tax, arguably producing the economic boom that made Wisconsin “the star of the Snowbelt,” as the Wall Street Journal proclaimed in 1979.

Thompson refashioned a welfare system that had turned corrosive to recipients into a work-focused aid program, and his school choice program offered a parental alternative to the often dismally ineffective Milwaukee Public Schools.

Whatever their faults, these were major policy initiatives that stand in stark contrast to the stalled state government of the past 10 years. Wisconsin now faces a $5 billion deficit, a tax system riddled with inequities, school and municipal funding formulas that shout out for reform, a sagging economy and a per capita income that now trails the nation.

These problems can’t be solved without smart, passionate leadership from key legislators. In past decades, there were many lawmakers who mixed (in varying degrees) big-picture thinking, tactical smarts and a knack for compromise: Paul Offner, Mary Lou Munts, David Prosser, Tony Earl, Clifford “Tiny” Krueger, Bob Kasten, Mary Panzer, Walter John Chilsen, Dennis Conta, Walter Hollander, Tom Loftus, John Shabaz, Jerry Kleczka, and bad boys David Berger and Gary George (who, at their best, did big-picture policy).

“There was a time when the two houses could function like think tanks,” says a veteran lobbyist. “Now lawmakers are bit players to the [party] leadership. It’s all about supporting a public relations agenda, which is built around the ‘gotcha’ roll calls, which feed into attack ads at election time. Bipartisanship is a dirty word.”

Ironically, two of the most gifted lawmakers in memory – both now disgraced – may be most to blame for the current situation: former Assembly Speaker Scott Jensen and former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala.

These brilliant and fierce antagonists were forced from office in the caucus scandal almost seven years ago. Still, their legacy – solidified power in leadership, diminished power for committee chairs, and an all-consuming focus on shaping legislative votes for electoral advantage – lingers like an endless hangover.

“It reached an apex with them,” the veteran lobbyist says. “Under Chvala, you wouldn’t have strong independent senators like Offner, [Bill] Bablitch or John Mauer. Chvala wanted foot soldiers, not true collaborators. I’ve heard the same case made for the Assembly. Jensen was so overpowering. He recruited candidates and wasn’t looking for intellectual equals; he was looking for people he could rely on to execute his agenda.”

The result is a Legislature of lesser mortals. “These are not giants but C students,” says the veteran lobbyist.

Yet Assembly Republicans are following the same Jensen playbook, with increasingly diminished returns. Ronald Reagan’s “big tent” Republicanism has long been supplanted by a socially conservative, ideologically purist conservatism that disdains moderates. Assembly Democrats, under the savvy campaign leadership of Mark Pocan, have happily filled the void with moderate candidates and won the swing districts. But it’s too early to tell how that will influence policy-making.

Which brings us to our survey. Insiders say it’s the Assembly and its new Democratic majority that bears watching in 2009. The Senate, in contrast, remains a backwater bobbing with Democratic and Republican deadwood, has-beens, disappointments and the ghost of Chuck Chvala. Only two senators placed on our list of the top nine lawmakers.

That’s right, nine. For the first time in the history of doing these surveys, Milwaukee Magazine could not come up with 10 “best” state legislators. Perhaps more than anything, this underlines the sadly diminished effectiveness of a once-proud Legislature.

Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison):
The only consensus All-American in the talent-poor legislative league. Liberals and conservatives alike picked this six-term incumbent as a winner. Pocan, 44, blocks, tackles, helps call the plays, cheers for his Democratic teammates and even extends a hand to opponents. By all accounts, the consummate team player: His savvy strategizing helped the caucus win 14 seats in recent years, culminating in November with the capture of the Assembly majority.

He’s gay and represents a crunchy Birkenstock-and-food-co-op district on Madison’s East Side. But his roots are in the blue-collar world of Kenosha, where his dad was a longtime alderman. His progressive politics are studiously practical, tacked to win in precincts where voters don’t eat orzo and hummus.

“I’ve never seen anyone so adept at pushing through an agenda,” says a liberal lobbyist. “He is a genius with reaching across the aisle.”

“Very focused on getting things done,” says another observer. “Loves putting together deals. He can work magic.”

Early on, Pocan was a firebrand with a knack for needling Speakers Scott Jensen and John Gard. But once he was appointed to Joint Finance, Pocan matured “like a fine wine,” the lobbyist notes. “He can still throw the best barbs, but now he does it in a way that won’t alienate people. He’s learned to make friends with his enemies.”

Take the former Republican staffer who says: “Praise from conservatives is probably the last thing Pocan needs, but he’s a really nice guy who works well behind the scenes with the GOP.”

Another Republican foot soldier calls Pocan “hands down the smartest Assembly Democrat,” comparing him to a past genius: Jensen.

“Pocan is the Bizarro World Scott Jensen,” he gamefully explains. “If Scott were liberal, gay and from the isthmus of Madison, he’d be Mark Pocan. If Pocan were conservative, straight and from Waukesha County, he’d be Jensen. They even have the same hairline.”

Rep. Brett Davis (R-Oregon): A surprise winner in the survey, Davis, who’s only 33, impresses both Democrats and Republicans for winning three terms in a normally Democratic district. “I can’t stand him,” groans a liberal activist who nonetheless considers Davis one of the best. “WEAC and other leftists go after him every single election,” notes a Republican staffer. He adds that the moderate Davis has sway in the conservative GOP caucus because the party wants to hold his seat. Thoughtful, a hard worker, and a former Tommy Thompson whiz kid, Davis is described as having “a natural ability to find the middle ground.” Adds one GOP partisan: “Davis is one of the party’s rising stars.”

Rep. Mark Gottlieb (R-Port Washington): A solid Republican of the old school. Gottlieb, 52, a Navy veteran and civil engineer by training, “is scary smart and the go-to-guy for any legislator who needs help with a bill,” says a staffer. “The more complicated the bill, the more likely they’ll come to him for help.” Gottlieb, who takes out the magnifying glass to compare bill wordings to existing statutes, is a detail man on state budgets on par with legendary Legislative Fiscal Bureau head Bob Lang, says the staffer.

Interest group representatives like Gottlieb because he’ll give them a fair hearing. “He’ll ask questions,” says one. “He looks for the middle ground,” says another. “He really cares about the state’s future,” says a third. (Think what it means that this is considered unusual behavior for a lawmaker these days.)

Not to be overlooked: Gottlieb has cojones. Criticism from bloggers and talk radio doesn’t faze him, says an observer.

Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh): Another surprise winner, Hintz, only 35 and in his second term, is steeped in governmental experience as both a former legislative and congressional staffer, a political science instructor at UW-Oshkosh and a budget analyst for the city of Long Beach, Calif. Observers from both parties call Hintz a rising star with statewide potential.

Says a conservative lobbyist: “He asks good questions and he’s willing to change his view in response to new information. Even if he disagrees with a group, he’ll take a look at their arguments. That’s remarkable in this day and age.”

Says a former lawmaker: “Hintz became a leader after just one term. He’s bright, hard-working and willing to take the time to learn complex issues.”

Rep. Kitty Rhoades (R-Hudson): She’s the rare “get-’er-done” Assembly GOPer. As the Joint Finance co-chair, Rhoades, 57, was a moderate who toed the conservative party line while maintaining good working relationships with key Democratic legislators and the Doyle administration. “She’s a great deal-cutter, a great team player,” says a former Capitol staffer. But her links to former Speaker Mike Huebsch cost her when Rep. Jeff Fitzgerald was elected minority leader for the new session: Rhoades lost her Finance seat in the changeover, which likely leaves her with less clout.

Rep. Mike Huebsch (R-West Salem): As Assembly Speaker, Huebsch, 44, was never as revered – or feared – as predecessors John Gard and Scott Jensen. But insiders say he did remarkably well managing the spectacularly fractured GOP caucus while dealing with a hostile governor and a Democratic Senate. “He did as good a job as anyone could in those circumstances,” says a lobbyist. “He played a difficult hand with a slender divided majority,” says another admirer.

The comparison to Jensen is particularly unfair, says one staffer, given that Jensen worked with a Republican governor. The better model for Huebsch’s success is how Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala forced concessions out of Gov. Tommy Thompson and Speaker Jensen. Huebsch was “incredibly effective” as a firewall for conservatives. “Unlike Chuck, he didn’t have to break the law or be a prick about it either,” he adds.

Still, the breakdown in state governance has deep roots in Huebsch’s contentious caucus. The more dogmatic conservatives, egged on by Milwaukee talk radio, held the budget hostage for months last year before agreeing to a compromise that wiser heads would have reached much earlier. With the Democratic capture of the Assembly in November, the strategy looked all the more questionable. Huebsch fell on his sword and was replaced as GOP leader in the new session.

Sen. Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay): “He’s a bit of an old-fashioned Republican,” says an observer. Which, in the parlance of today’s state politics, is code for: R-E-A-S-O-N-A-B-L-E. Cowles, 58, has been in the Senate for 21 years. A critic says Fox Valley neighbor Mike Ellis “leads him around by the nose. He doesn’t think for himself.”

But that’s the minority view. “Rob Cowles is smart, studious and hard-working,” says a liberal activist. “He’s really sharp on budget issues and especially strong on environmental policy. He rises above the poisonous partisanship that grips the Capitol.”

That theme is heard time and again: Cowles is conscientious, bipartisan and “has the best interests of state government at heart.”

Still, the state Senate is a hard place to shine.

Rep. Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville): Only in his second term, this former United Auto Worker union leader’s rise to the Speaker’s post is a refreshing throwback to the days when the Legislature wasn’t run by baby-faced sharpies whose only run-in with manual labor was busing tables one summer. Sheridan, 50, is “a blue-collar guy who looks a lot like his district,” says a liberal activist. “People like him. He’s well-respected.”

Adds a veteran Republican counselor, “He’s not a genius or a prodigy, just a good manager of people and issues. He knows how to get and count votes.” Smart enough, several observers agreed, to forge a partnership early on with the master vote-getter, Mark Pocan.

Though a moderate Democrat, Sheridan will push the progressive agenda, says one lobbyist. But his firsthand experience with General Motors’ abandonment of Janesville makes economic development the major concern for him.

Whether Sheridan acquires the swelled head that Speakers invariably display is the big question, says a Republican observer. “They all get it.”

Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona): The son of Midge Miller, a legendary Dane County progressive, Mark Miller, 65, has quietly risen to power as co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee. “A serious legislator, very thoughtful and refreshingly open to doing the right thing,” says a Capitol watcher. “He is progressive and has a core set of beliefs. Yet he’ll listen to other points of view to arrive at a solution.”

A liberal activist describes Miller as “one of those Madison senators who actually does a lot of work.” (That would leave Fred Risser as the one who doesn’t.) “He’s as good as I’ve seen,” says a trade group leader.

Almost Best: Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau), Sen. Luther Olsen (R-Ripon), Sen. Russ Decker (D-Weston), Sen. Mike Ellis (R-Neenah) and Rep. Spencer Black (D-Madison).

Rep. Leon Young (D-Milwaukee):
An inevitable bottom-dweller in Milwaukee Magazine’speriodic legislative surveys, Young, 41, remains the worst of the worst after 16 years in the Assembly. “He needs to get a different job,” says a diplomatic liberal activist. Other comments: “a total waste of space,” “a fencepost,” “a complete joke” and “a back-bencher.” Adds a puzzled former Democratic lawmaker: “I’m still waiting for him to offer a reason why he’s in the Legislature.”

Maybe it’s to pay his child-support obligations, quips a Republican cynic. One of the Capitol’s reigning lotharios, Young got caught in a legal cat fight in 2007 involving his live-in girlfriend and the mother of his baby son that played out before an incredulous Milwaukee County Court Commissioner. Told that he took both women on the same flight for a Las Vegas getaway, the commissioner could only marvel: “That took a lot of guts, I’ll say that.”

Young’s representation of a poverty-ridden district is widely seen as tragic. He is, in many ways, Exhibit A of Milwaukee’s diminished power in the Legislature.

Sen. Alan Lasee (R-De Pere): To give this 34-year legislative fossil his due, he’s said to have a pleasant personality, and the fact that he raises exotic animals like fainting goats, llamas and miniature donkeys certainly sets him apart from your typical lawmaker. But aside from his annual introduction of death penalty legislation, nobody quite knows what Alan Lasee, 71, does.

“A completely useless Republican in a district crying out for more active blood,” declares a former legislative staffer.

Remarkably, Lasee has made the list of worst legislators in all four surveys by this magazine, going back to 1986.

Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin): “Everybody hates her, even the Republicans. She’s just an idiot,” says a liberal-cause lobbyist.

As for Republicans, one GOP foot soldier says Lazich, 56, is flat-out cuckoo: “Literally nuts.” Conservative activists like him despise Lazich for lying about a GOP leadership vote and for duplicitous statements on the ill-fated Taxpayers Bill of Rights legislation. “There may be no legislator taken less seriously by her colleagues,” he asserts.

“One never knows what she will do or why,” sighs another observer. “Mary’s vision doesn’t extend beyond her own short-sightedness.”

Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater): Notorious for his attacks upon the UW System as chair of the Assembly Committee on Colleges and Universities, Nass, 56, represents the nadir of Know-Nothing Republicanism. “Nass doesn’t make any meaningful contribution to the state, he just trashes the UW at every opportunity,” says a liberal activist. A veteran Republican operative is no kinder: “Nass is smart enough to be dangerous, but then he veers off into so many narrow, angry tangents.” The 10-term lawmaker draws comfort from hardcore conservatives like Bill Kramer and Leah Vukmir, “who want to cleanse the Assembly GOP so only right-wing zealots exist,” a GOP insider complains.

But give Nass credit: He’s a remarkable ventriloquist with a world-class ability to throw his voice. More than one reporter has had the odd experience of asking Nass a question, only to have the answer come from the mouth of his top aide, Mike Mikalsen, who was sitting off to the side. One can only wonder which one is the real dummy.

Sen. Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee): Williams, 72, was a path-breaking supporter of school vouchers in Milwaukee, which put her on the national speaker circuit for years. But after 28 years in the Legislature, “She has become completely irrelevant today,” says a critic.

“Events have passed her by,” adds a veteran lobbyist.

“She’s just keeping a chair warm,” adds another observer.

Rep. Leah Vukmir (R-Wauwatosa): Her champions rank this former nurse and educational reform advocate among the Legislature’s best. “Very, very bright and really bones up on the issues,” says a conservative lobbyist. A Republican operative credits Vukmir, 50, for making her case “in a more appealing way than some of the other archconservative troglodytes.” He even sees her as poised for a leadership position.

But this is the minority view. “Vukmir should be a star but is an absolute dud,” says another Republican. By withholding her vote and claiming the “more conservative than thou” pose, Vukmir forced her caucus to cut deals with the Democrats and give up more ground. “She just has no strategic sense,” he despairs, adding that Vukmir is despised by most fellow Republicans.

“It’s all about Leah,” grumbles a current Republican staffer. “Given the choice of reaching a compromise or having an issue to campaign on, she will choose the latter.”

Her Democratic critics, of course, love the fact that some Republicans see Vukmir as their future. “They deserve her. She’s shrill, uncompromising, ideological and personally unpleasant.”

Sen. Lena Taylor, (D-Milwaukee): She’s no Gwen Moore, who, despite her occasionally rancorous style, was “brilliant and knew state law back to front,” says an admiring staffer. With Moore’s promotion to Congress, Taylor stepped up to the state Senate from the Assembly. Too bad for Milwaukee.

“She has absolutely no depth of understanding,” says a conservative-minded lobbyist. “And she’s tiresome. It’s just awful to have to listen to her talk and talk.” A liberal-minded lobbyist calls her “bombastic and egotistical. You can’t have a conversation without her reminding you she’s an attorney.”

A veteran trade group representative faults Taylor for “never stopping to understand the issue, because she already has the answer.” She’s “all bluster, with no substance,” says another observer.

Rep. Scott Suder (R-Abbotsford): Liberals despise this outspoken right-winger. “Just an ineffective little brat. He’s not at all involved in the legislative process. And he’s got this righteous, holier-than-thou attitude,” says one. A liberal lobbyist calls Suder “a mean-spirited little twerp … totally incapable of working with Democrats because of his hyperpartisanship.”

The surprise is that several Republican respondents would happily throw Suder, 40, to the wolves, too. They blame him for setting off the caucus scandal by romancing and then dumping a young legislative staffer. This is the Scorned Woman explanation of the Capitol scandal.

“She snapped and decided to run to the press and burn the place down,” says an insider. “Suder’s inability to keep his pants zipped up around the staff” triggered an institutional disaster, he fumes.

Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids): Retire already, Marlin. You’ve put in 38 years under the dome. And who is better cut out for blogging than “Snarlin’ Marlin”? Anything but stay at the Capitol, where the consensus is that he’s “way past his prime.” Once a co-chair of Joint Finance and a leader of his caucus, Schneider, 66, now fumes about renaming the state Christmas tree as the “state holiday tree” and successfully advocates for the designation of a state tartan. (You could look it up.)

“I don’t know if he even remembers what he believes in anymore,” says a lobbyist. “He’s just out there yelling and screaming.”

A former staffer offers a grace note: “It’s kind of sad. Marlin Schneider was once a great lion of the institution, and now he’s a bitter caricature of himself.”

Sen. Kathleen Vinehout (D-Alma): Many democrats have a serious case of buyer’s remorse with this first-term lawmaker, who’s a former dairy farmer and college professor. “A traitor,” says a progressive activist, who is among those angered that Vinehout opposed a bill requiring pharmacists to fill all valid prescriptions regardless of their personal beliefs on matters such as contraception or abortion. As a candidate, she had filled out an abortion-rights questionnaire promising to support the legislation.

Vinehout, 50, has some admirers who praise her focus on tax reform and say she’s exactly the sort of moderate Democrats needed to gain the majority. But detractors describe her as a bad listener, not a consensus-builder, and openly contemptuous of the parts of her western Wisconsin district that didn’t vote for her in 2006.

“She almost completely lacks political judgment and has managed to alienate just about everyone in her caucus,” says a Democratic activist. As for the Republican view, from a former legislative staffer: “She’s proof that literally anyone can be a state senator.”

Almost worst: Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), Sen. Judy Robson (D-Beloit).

Rising Stars
Rep. Jason Fields (D-Milwaukee), 35, third term:With a banking and investment background, Fields “helps Democrats understand business issues,” says a former lawmaker. A Milwaukee observer likes the fact that Fields bucks his own party by supporting school choice. “He’s exactly what the Legislature needs – someone who doesn’t need the job to be considered successful.” Another Milwaukee source says that Fields not only “works both sides of the aisle” in Madison, but “he moves as comfortably in the C Suite as in the central city.” Politically, this could make for a potent mix at the ballot box. “Fields has ‘Future Mayor of Milwaukee’ written all over him,” he suggests.

Rep. Donna Seidel (D-Wausau), 48, third term:“Kind of a sleeper, but I think she’s going to be a star,” a liberal lobbyist predicts. “She’s incredibly intelligent, politically astute and already very seasoned. She’s also very disciplined, something Democrats usually aren’t.” Two other observers also put Seidel on their watch lists. 

Most Over the Hill
Vampires must have bitten Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison) and Rep. Fred Kessler (D-Milwaukee) centuries ago. How else to explain the preternatural legislative tenures of the two Freds?

Risser, 81, dates his first election to the skinny Elvis and Eisenhower’s second term. Kessler, 69, took office just as JFK’s New Frontier was launched. He left the Assembly in 1972 to become a Milwaukee County judge, twice ran unsuccessfully for Congress and somehow was re-elected to the Assembly in 2004. The best work of both men is long past, observers agree.

“I feel sorry for Risser a little bit,” says a liberal activist. “He’s part of the institution, but it’s been so long since he’s gotten anything done.”

Kessler doesn’t elicit sympathy. He’s seen as ruthless, selfish and unconcerned about other Democrats. He’s also rude and imperious to his underlings, says a knowing staffer.

“Kessler is another reason Milwaukee has no influence or recognition in the Legislature,” a trade group critic chimes in.

Best Worker Bee
Sen. Joe Leibham (R-Sheboygan), 39, second term: “Leibham is as honest as the day is long,” says a trade group leader. “His word is his commitment. He picks and chooses his battles, and he’s never worried about grabbing headlines. Just a hard worker and underappreciated for it.” 

Best Secret Legislator
And the winner (drum roll, please) …
Chuck Chvala!

Never mind that the former senate majority leader served a nine-month jail sentence for felony misconduct in office related to illegal campaign activities. One outré Republican source calls Chvala one of the 10 best legislators, saying he still calls the shots through current Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, whose top aide happens to be Chvala’s wife, Barbara Wooster.

“She is simply brilliant. The entire legislative agenda of the Democrats is orchestrated by her. And the old Chvala campaign infrastructure has been re-created at One Wisconsin Now,” he says of that liberal guns-a-blazing issues-advocacy group.

Chvala “single-handedly stopped Tommy Thompson and Scott Jensen from remaking this state into a conservative/free-market laboratory of democracy,” the source argues. “He did it at the expense of being unlikable, unethical and even illegal. In essence, he completely sacrificed his career for the Democratic agenda.”

Considering Chvala’s many wins over the GOP, outré Republican says, “I’ve always thought it was shameful that the thanks he got from liberals was to throw him under the bus and airbrush him out of their history. The ungrateful bastards should’ve erected a statue to him.”

When I ran this scenario by a liberal Democrat activist, my reward was chuckling on the other end of the line: “It’s totally 100 percent true. I’m surprised you guys didn’t know that … You didn’t think that Chuck and Russ talk?”

A veteran lobbyist disputes the theory, saying Decker is his own man. “He may consult with Chvala, but he talks to a lot of people.”

And if Chvala’s advice to Decker is so strategic, why does Decker get mixed grades in this survey? One admirer described him as a hard worker who’s “totally in control of the Senate.” Yet critics call Decker a tool of special interests and “a bare-knuckle fighter.”

Of course, this is similar to how Chvala (who, for all his impact, never got chosen a best legislator) was described back in the day. He and Decker are close for a reason.

How The Rankings Were Done
We solicited in-depth, anonymous comments of 21 Capitol observers spanning the left-right continuum, including staffers, lobbyists, reporters and others. Participants were asked to grade lawmakers on the basis of vision, savviness, influence, work ethic, brains and integrity. (Let it be noted that conservative respondents tended to follow directions better and provided more detailed assessments.)

The range of responses was stunning: 65 lawmakers cited as best, 75 as worst and some landing in both categories. The winners and losers received at least five votes; runners-up had four votes. Your writer unilaterally tossed Crazy Frank Lasee, famous for his schemes to arm Wisconsin school teachers and to shut down the UW Law School, from the worst list. It seemed the right thing to do after the voters tossed Crazy Frank from the Assembly in the November election.