If you want to know where Republican Assembly Speaker John Gard comes from, the deer heads and a 42-inch northern pike on his state Capitol office walls point to Wisconsin’s North Woods – the small city of Peshtigo in the 89th Assembly District, to be precise.
Gard’s district begins north of Green Bay and follows Highway 41 through Oconto and Marinette to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.
Now, if you ask, Where is he coming from? – that is, what is his mission; what makes this hard-driving, ultra-conservative Assembly speaker tick? – he’ll tell you he’s out to elevate -northern Wisconsin, which he says is short-changed on state finances, leadership positions and (this is crucial) respect.
Gard says “Madison elites” have looked down on people from farms, towns and small cities like Peshtigo (population 3,357), saying, in effect, “You folks from the north aren’t as smart as the rest of us.”
During an interview at his Peshtigo house, Gard was droppin’ his “gs” like another politician who rose to power from small-town Wisconsin, former Gov. Tommy G. Thompson. Tommy’s official oil portrait, rescued by Gard from a State Historical Society stairwell, now hangs in the speaker’s Capitol office with the other trophies.
“The people in Peshtigo and Marinette and Oconto and Lena [where Gard’s family farmed] are hard-workin’, family-lovin’, God-fearing people,” says Gard. “And, you know, that’s who I represent.”
Since becoming speaker in 2003, Gard has used his -power to push that North Woods philosophy at the Capitol – the Assembly’s support under Gard’s leadership for legalizing the carrying of concealed weapons is a good example – regardless of how it plays in Madison, he says. “What you see is what you get.”
Another high-profile example: his hard-line Constitutional amendment outlawing same-sex relationships.
Gard says he wished the matter had not been forced upon legislators by a Massachusetts court ruling, but he also says he was soundly criticized back home “for not acting quickly enough” when the issue emerged. So earlier this year, he pushed through the Assembly a constitutional amendment banning gay -marriages and civil unions – a measure more sweeping than other states were implementing at the time.
“The people I represent have very strong feelings about what they think marriage means” – traditional views he says he shares. His proposal was a response to demands for strong action from neighbors as well as local Catholic and Baptist congregations in his district, he says. “I got more e-mails and calls on [same-sex marriage] than on any issue in the last two years. It’s a real issue.”
Gard says his political beliefs, such as opposition to abortion and same-sex relationships, cannot be separated from the religious convictions that govern his life. He describes himself as “a traditional Roman Catholic” and explains: “You have to be who you are.”
Another Gard initiative was passing a politically popular tax freeze measure, forcing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle to veto it. Though Doyle claimed a short-term procedural victory, veto overrides will be easier through the 2006 election if Republicans gain just a few seats this fall.
Gard was stymied in July in his effort to completely bypass Doyle by passing a constitutional amendment limiting tax increases and government spending. But again, the delay may be short-lived.
Gard was pushing the so-called Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR)– an import from Colorado boosted at high volume by Milwaukee right-wing talk radio – because it would reduce the size of government statewide. He says TABOR is absolutely necessary to create jobs by cutting taxes, a goal that he says will govern all of his activities in the next session. He has been trying to cut taxes and spending since he got into politics in 1987. “I haven’t changed on these issues,” he says.
TABOR never came to a 2004 vote because Gard and then-Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer (R-West Bend) argued, as a deadline expired, over which house should vote first.
State Rep. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend), described by Gard as a valued ally who has been the Assembly caucus vice chair since 1999, then ran in the September primary against Panzer with a last-minute, TABOR-inspired candidacy.
Panzer became something of a punching bag in the sudden and highly publicized primary. Milwaukee-area right-wing talk radio trained their fire on Panzer while Grothman positioned himself against her as the truer conservative. Other than -TABOR, Grothman’s major issue was his 100 percent opposition to abortion, while Panzer had earned the wrath of pro-life voters (and an unwanted endorsement by Planned Parenthood) by favoring abortion in -cases of rape, incest and the health of the mother.
His candidacy – by an incumbent from the same party and hometown as another sitting legislator – is said to be unprecedented in Wisconsin politics. His crushing 4-1 margin of victory over Panzer completed the short, stunning election. Moreover, it led to the transfer of her leadership position to a senator more in step with Gard’s hard-edged agenda and style.
Three days after the primary, Senate Republicans voted the presidency to state Sen. Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau). Fitzgerald was the lead Senate sponsor of the constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriages and civil unions. After winning the Senate -presidency, Fitzgerald said his priorities included adoption of TABOR, approvals of permission to carry concealed weapons and the second required passage of the constitutional ban on same-sex marriages and civil unions – “a no-brainer,” he called it.
Gard denies he sent Grothman to torpedo Panzer, but her defeat consolidates Gard’s influence in Madison and firms up the Republican Party’s direction. Gard won’t say if he will challenge Doyle in 2006; arguably, he already has the state’s second most powerful position after the governor’s. “I love doing what I’m doing,” he says. With Panzer out of the way, he should love the job even more.
But don’t look for Gard to take a breather in 2005. It’s not in his nature. He’s only 41 and has been re-elected eight times. He’s hoping to expand his 59-40 Assembly majority. He raised a rec-ord campaign war chest in his first year as speaker. He says he’ll bring back TABOR in January. He says the fight over taxes will go on “until the end of time.”
Talk about being into things for the long haul.
Green Bay Packers President and Chief Executive Officer Bob Harlan is one Gard fan who found out that Gard has endurance. Gard worked day and night for months, Harlan says, to help win a Brown County referendum and $9 million in state funding for the team’s $295 million Lambeau Field renovation plan to succeed.
“I did not know John prior” to the stadium issue, says Harlan, but Gard proved to be a well-practiced strategist who helped win Packers financing both in Brown County and in Madison following the divisive battle over building Miller Park.
“He kind of built a program for me – who I needed to see and what I needed to do,” says Harlan. “We’d meet at factories at 5 a.m.,” sometimes receiving chilly receptions for their proposal to add a new local sales tax.
“Politics was brand new to me,” -Harlan says, and Gard offered sound advice: “Brace yourselves.” Their hard work paid off.
There are early clues to Gard’s persistence: At Lena High School, Gard was an all-conference wide receiver – at 5 feet 8 inches and 135 pounds – on the football team. He was a conference champion mile and two-mile runner, having the energy after getting up -early to milk the family’s cows. At the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse, Gard ran track and cross-country – all four years.
There are legislators who say Gard is more than merely competitive. “He’s very arrogant,” says state Rep. Marc Pocan (D-Madison), a major Gard opponent. “He uses the raw power of his position.… He has tantrums.”
Partisan, yes, says Gard. Combative? “I think that’s a bad rap.” He says it comes from people who don’t understand that his job as speaker is to represent his entire caucus – and it’s a conservative one – against opposition Democrats, especially Gov. Doyle.
Gard says Pocan is constantly attacking him personally and offers this analysis: “He is never going to be happy.” Similarly, he says longtime critics back home simply can’t get over his ballot box successes that began in 1987 as a first-time candidate.
Gard, though, gets some unlikely backing on the perils of leadership from state Sen. Chuck Chvala, former Senate Democratic majority leader. Chvala says his job was to stand up to Republican Gov. Thompson the way that Gard takes on Doyle. “It’s the clash of ideas,” says -Chvala. “It’s democracy.”
Chvala says he found Gard honest and pragmatic in two budget negotiations but thought Gard’s very conservative agenda reflected “a dramatic move to the right” by legislative Republicans. “He’s certainly in sync with his caucus,” says Chvala, one of several veteran lawmakers facing felony charges in the Capitol corruption scandal.
Others who know or work with Gard say he is not misjudged because of how he plays the speaker’s role. They say he is overly engaged with the inside baseball of the Legislature because he has worked no where else since graduation from college. And they say he is too defensive about his northern Wisconsin roots, too narrow-minded to operate among diverse, statewide interests.
Marc Marotta, Doyle’s chief adviser and secretary of the Department of Administration, says Gard is great to talk to about the Packers, but his “us vs. them mentality” blinds him to the big political picture.
An example: Marotta says Gard’s demands on behalf of a northern Wisconsin road project last year came across as parochial because the state’s across-the-board fiscal picture was troubled. “It’s not that it’s north vs. the rest of the state,” says -Marotta.
TABOR was another example. After Doyle submitted a budget in 2003 that did not raise taxes, Gard responded with various mandatory freezes, TABOR being the most extreme, says Marotta. “It drives John crazy that we solved their $3.2 billion [deficit] mess without raising taxes,” he says.
Another person who apparently drives Gard crazy is former state Rep. Stan Gruszynski. Currently a University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point outreach manager, Gruszynski retired from the Assembly in 1994 after an unsuccessful Congressional run. He now lives on his family’s Marinette dairy farm in Gard’s district and was among Democrats who worked unsuccessfully to defeat Gard in a special election in 1987.
Gruszynski is a liberal Democrat in the mold of the old Wisconsin Progressives, a supporter of Howard Dean in the 2004 primaries and a Wisconsin member of the Democratic National Committee. As a state legislator, he championed farmers and was a noted environmentalist.
He and Gard, though both had lived on farms in the same Assembly district, were worlds apart ideologically. Gruszynski says Gard did have a rough introduction into the Assembly because Gard blew in as a 24-year-old know-it-all rookie legislator, not because there was a bias against northerners.
“I think John Gard came [to Madison] with a chip on his shoulder,” says Gruszynski. “I think he thought people would disrespect him.”
Gruszynski says the problem was that Gard was unwilling to listen to more senior legislators – to be seen and not heard. “He was very self-righteous, “ says Gruszynski, and refused to recognize the message being sent from the Democratic side of the aisle: “There’s more than one perspective here.”
The long-standing animosity between Gruszynski and Gard illustrates some basic political truths: Politicians have long memories, the personal is political, perception is everything and finger-pointing is endless.
Gard says the blame lies with Gruszynski and -other Democrats who disrespected him from the start because he was a young, conservative Republican. Gard says that for the first three or four years of his career, Gruszynski and his colleagues “would literally get up on the floor every day and personally go after me” with “the meanest stuff you could imagine.
“Every day was a different attack,” says Steve Baas, staff aide for Gard. “His age, his small-town background, his politics, his prospects – it was just a constant vicious pounding.”
“The extreme faction of [Democrats] disliked me at that time,” Gard maintains, “and that has never changed.” He illustrates it with a pivotal anecdote involving a -genuinely neutral Wisconsin symbol: the Blue Book, the official guide to state government and politics.
Gard recalls that in front of the Assembly at the end of his first session, at what was supposed to be a bipartisan social event, -Gruszynski handed him a State of Wisconsin Blue Book signed by the other legislators. These autographed Blue Books were presented only as going-away presents to colleagues who were leaving.
The inference, says Gard, was: “You won’t be coming back.”
Gruszynski remembers -being given the simple task of handing out some presents, saying there may have been gag gifts among them, and has no recollection of the deeply symbolic Blue Book Gard said came his way. -Gruszynski says he was stunned Gard would bring it up after 16 years. He said it proves his point that Gard always lacked perspective.
His advice: “Get over it, John.”
But Gard hasn’t. And maybe it has become a boomerang that has hit Democrats the hardest. “I’m glad it happened,” he says. “It made my skin so thick it takes a chain saw to get through it.” He has used the put-down as payback for what he sees as ingrained disrespect at the state Capitol for northern politicos.
“Since that time, I have worked with my team to basically win every seat in northern Wisconsin,” he says. His margin in the Assembly is already a comfortable 59-40. “When we started, there were mostly Democrats up here. And we have picked up most of those seats.”
When Gard returns to his home district in Peshtigo, you can find him most mornings drinking coffee and shooting the breeze at The Pepper Mill Family Restaurant on Highway 41, 180 miles and an entire political world away from Madison. The Pepper Mill shares a parking lot with Pete’s Sports Shop, where you can buy fishing tackle and hunting gear, live bait and discount liquor: Night crawlers are $1.50 a dozen; a case of Kessler Blended Whiskey, in 1.75-liter bottles, $74.99.
Gard pays for his own coffee when he talks with regulars – the local judge, dentist, newspaper publisher and retired police chief, plus others – known variously as “the counter crew” or “the early birds.” Gard laughs because he says some call them “my cabinet.” That sort of camaraderie “is what makes those cafes so great in these little towns,” he says.
Gard hunts and fishes with some of his coffee pals, and they are pleased that one of their own is speaker. “It’s nice to have a spokesman from the northern part of the state instead of from the south dictating to us,” says Charles Gardon, a regular at The Pepper Mill and president of the company that owns the Peshtigo Times.
Gard took over as speaker in January 2003 after Rep. Scott Jensen (R-Town of Brookfield) stepped down from the speaker’s chair after he was charged with three felonies in the corruption scandal.
Gard and Jensen agree they have different styles and backgrounds. Jensen is smoother, has worked in lobbying and public relations. His base is in Waukesha County’s suburbs. He’s got a bachelor’s degree from a private school, Iowa’s Drake University, and a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard.
How does Gard see himself? “Raised on a farm,” he says. “A hard worker. I’m not some Rhodes scholar.”
Gard made these and other observations at his modest, basically furnished rural Peshtigo house. Set back from the street on six wooded acres, the house is a three-bedroom ranch. A white Oldsmobile Bravada SUVwith a Green Bay Packers commemorative license plate sits in the driveway. “Hunter,” the family’s energetic 4-year-old black-and-white English spaniel, is tethered in the front yard. A statue of the Virgin Mary stands near the front door. Decorating the interior are family photos, paintings by Wisconsin artists and a bust of Abe Lincoln.
Gard met former Shawano legislator Cate Zeuske while they both served in the Assembly. They married in 1990. The couple have a 12-year-old son, John; Zeuske, 45, has a daughter, Libby, 17, from a previous marriage.
“God blessed Cate and me with these two special kids,” Gard says, and many observers, regardless of party, give them both high marks for dedicated parenting in the midst of demanding careers.
For a time, Gard and Zeuske were a leading young Republican power couple in state government. Zeuske served a term as state treasurer, lost a run against U.S.Sen. Herb Kohl and worked as revenue secretary under Thompson until he resigned in 2001 to take a cabinet job with President George W. Bush.
Since April 2001, Zeuske has worked as treasurer and director of administration for The Taxpayers Network, a Cedarburg-based conservative think tank and membership organization founded in 1992. She divides her work time between Cedarburg and “remote offices,” says The Taxpayers Network.
Zeuske’s 2003 compensation from the organization was $142,701, with an additional $17,638 in benefits, according to federal tax rec-ords. As a legislator, Gard receives an annual salary of $44,233, and he declined the last two legislative raises, records show.
During the school year, the Gard-Zeuske family lives in a house in Sun Prairie, near Madison. They bought the house in December 1999. Records show the property is worth $169,300. The house in Peshtigo is worth $105,430.
A campaign letter Gard sent to his constituents in 2002 said the arrangement allowed the busy family to live together during the week. The children are enrolled in a Sun Prairie Catholic school.
“I love my job, but I love my kids more,” the letter said. “I believe I have found a way to do both well.” In an interview, Gard says owning and living in a house far from his district – and spending weekends in Peshtigo – was “the right thing to do. My number-one job is Dad.”
The Sun Prairie living arrangement is an issue still debated in Gard’s district. Ask people there what they think of Gard, and the house near Madison is the first thing out of their mouths, without prompting.
Jackie Burson, owner of Jake’s Coffee, Tea and Soda Shop in downtown Oconto, says it was fine with her. “People do what they have to do to keep their families together.”
However, one of The Pepper Mill “counter crew,” who asked not to be identified, says: “I don’t like it. They pay taxes there. Their kids go to schools there. They buy their groceries there. Don’t like it a bit.”
At the Capitol, there is an additional controversy related to Gard’s Sun Prairie house involving his state-paid expense reimbursements. Legislators representing Dane County may receive a per diem reimbursement of $44 for any part of a day they are in Madison on state business. Out-state legislators get $88 because their commutes are longer and they often rent rooms or apartments for overnights.
Because his family’s legal residence is in Peshtigo (though The Taxpayers Network IRS returns have listed Zeuske’s address as Sun Prairie since 2001), Gard collects per diem expenses at the higher rate, even when he is commuting round trip 23 miles from his Sun Prairie house.
He says he takes the higher amount because he declined the raises – cutting his salary by $1,336 – and because he doesn’t file as often as other legislators. Records show that in 2003, Gard collected $11,264 for 128 days, tying him for 33rd among 99 members of the Assembly. “We live in Peshtigo,” he says, summing up. “The Capitol is not in Peshtigo.”
Gard says the criticism of his second house is political, both from his opponents back home and through a general double standard against “people from the north [who] are never welcomed to be in a leadership role.” He notes that the Wisconsin Elections Board dismissed a complaint by a Democratic challenger over his residency in 2002. The board said it was a matter for the voters to decide.
Gard and others note that state Rep. Marlin Schneider (D-Wisconsin Rapids) also owns a house in Madison. Records show that Schneider, in 2003, filed for the most days – 151 – and collected the most money – $13,288.
Bruce Barrette is a dentist with an office in Marinette and one of Gard’s closest hunting and fishing buddies. He says the Sun Prairie house is good for Gard’s personal life.
Barrette described Gard as “a regular guy… who can dish it out and take it” whether at The Pepper Mill or at Barrette’s hunting cabin. Barrette says he is “kicking his butt” at cribbage; Gard agrees but adds: “I’d rather be the better hunter.”
There are political connections between the two friends. Barrette has contributed $1,825 to Gard between 1993 and 2003, state campaign records show. And with Gard’s support, Barrette was appointed by Thompson to the Wisconsin Dentistry Board in 1997 and reappointed by Govs. Scott McCallum and Doyle. Barrette now chairs the board.
In 1999, Gard and Barrette drove to Cooperstown, New York with their children to attend Robin Yount’s induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. And this summer, when former President Ronald Reagan died, the two buddies jumped on a Midwest Airlines flight to Washington, D.C.Gard called his friend and off they went to Washington without much of a plan, let alone hotel reservations. According to Gard, Gov. Doyle generously tried to transfer the governor’s two official tickets for the funeral to Gard, but the tickets were not transferable.
While in Washington, Gard and Barrette went to the U.S.Capitol, then by cab to Andrews Air Force Base to see the public ceremonies for “truly a great man.”
“I just had to go,” says Gard. He remembers becoming “a huge Ronald Reagan supporter” in 1976 while sitting in a car with his father listening to Reagan’s speech at the Republican National Convention. In 1988, Gard got to make small talk with Reagan at the White House and shook the president’s hand.
“He just made you melt when you met him,” says Gard “He was my political guidance.”
If Ronald Reagan has been Gard’s political guidance and Tommy Thompson his Wisconsin icon, it has been Gard’s hard-working farm parents who are his true role models.
“Nobody worked harder on that farm than my folks,” says Gard. Born in Milwaukee, he got to the farm at age 6 when, in 1969, his parents moved from Brown Deer to northern Wisconsin. “There were eight kids on a small dairy farm. There wasn’t much money. If we had a bucket of ice cream, it was the biggest deal of the month.”
While growing up, Gard’s family received food stamps. But he’s quick to point out that his parents never went on “welfare,” as some of his critics back home have claimed. He also denies any inference that his push for improvements to the W-2 Welfare Reform Program was some sort of compensation for a personal experience with public assistance. “I’m not ashamed of it,” he says. He’d always supported food stamps because it was part of “what the true role of government is, or should be,” he says. W-2 got rid of programs that discouraged work. “Work on a farm was never an issue.”
His father, Herbert, was raised in the country near Oconomowoc and seemed to have done a bit of everything except farming: two college years at the Catholic seminary in St. Francis (four of his brothers were priests), a hitch in the Navy, a year at the American Motors auto plant on Capitol Drive in Milwaukee and 10 years as a maintenance man at St. Robert’s School in Shorewood.
John Gard’s mother, the former Dixie McCarthy, was raised in Glendale and graduated from Shorewood High School. She was home full time with her first six children, ages 1 month to 7 years (John was second oldest), when the couple went off to Lena to become dairy farmers, as total novices.
She was 31, he was 34, and they left their Grandview Drive house for two more children, 139 acres and 30 cows because Herb had said he always wanted to be a dairy farmer. “My husband didn’t know a bull from a cow,” Dixie jokes.
Herbert says his friends bet they’d be back in a year. But like his son had done following the embarrassing Blue Book episode, Herbert says he worked hard to prove the doubters wrong.
The farm was “a great place to raise kids,” says Dixie, who still lives with Herbert in their farmhouse. “You’d see the boys on their bikes with their fishing poles, heading for the river.” John drove a hand-clutched, 70-horsepower John Deere tractor at age 7, pulling a hay bailer and wagon behind, having to stand to see and steer.
It’s not a stretch to see the determined farm kid gravitate to distance running and, though somewhat undersized, to tackle football, then to another kind of running and the knock-down, drag-out contact in campaigns – whether running interference for the Packers, managing an entire legislative caucus or butting heads with the -governor.
“I love to be underestimated,” Gard says.
But it’s worth noting that he got his shot after there were unintended consequences to an episode of Tommy Thompson’s stage-managing and cronyism.
Thompson was sworn in as a first-term governor in January 1987. Later that year, he picked a legislative pal and former roommate, state Rep. Dick Matty (R-Crivitz), to be director of tourism.
For Matty, first elected in 1973, the job meant a pay raise and a chance to promote hunting, fishing, snowmobiling and -other North Woods virtues. But in a short time, Matty was gone. Among his mistakes was placing a state tourism promo in a Japanese nudie magazine.
Matty’s appointment, however, had thrown the seat open to a high-stakes special election. Thompson wanted the seat held; Democrats hoped to pick it off. Marquee names squared off, campaigning in Gard’s district in person and by proxy – Thompson, Jensen, Gruszynski, David Prosser, Tom Loftus and others.
When he ran, Gard was just two years out of UW-LaCrosse, working for David Prosser, the Republican state representative from Appleton at the time and now a justice on the state Supreme Court. Gard won a seven-way Republican primary with 34 percent of the vote. In the general election, Gard’s winning margin was 311 votes out of 9,763 cast.
Gruszynski managed the Democrat’s campaign at the request of Tom Loftus, then Assembly speaker. Loftus thought that the Democrats might have a strategic leg-up because Gruszynski was raised in Marinette.
Running Gard’s campaign was Scott Jensen, then the 27-year-old staff director of the Assembly Republican caucus, who was somewhat out of his suburban Brookfield element. “I showed up way overdressed for bailing hay and riding around in a pickup truck,” Jensen recalls with a chuckle. “It was a bit of a culture shock for me.”
Jensen soon moved to Thompson’s office as chief of staff, then won an Assembly seat himself in 1992.
The two young Republicans were rising stars. Jensen became Assembly speaker in 1997 and named Gard, whom he called “my righthand man in the Legislature,” as chairman of the budget-writing Joint Committee on Finance.
“He’s the kind of guy you want to have on your side in a fight,” Jensen says, though Gard, still boyish-looking, really doesn’t look like a fighter.
Maybe “aggressor” is the right word. That’s how Tommy Thompson put it in a statement from his Washington, D.C., office about Gard: “John is an aggressive, intelligent and aggressive leader in the Assembly and for all of Wisconsin,” said Thompson. “From the day he arrived in the Legislature, John was a quick learner and a problem solver who always has his constituents’ best interests in mind.”
So when Jensen stepped down from the speaker’s chair at the end of 2002, Assembly Republicans, with Jensen’s blessing, turned to Gard as speaker.
The circle was closed.
Assembly Republicans got their money’s worth from their new speaker.
He won, with other Republican leaders, a state Supreme Court lawsuit that invalidated the Indian gaming and revenue compacts Doyle had signed. The Republicans successfully argued that the deals were illegal without legislative approval. Marotta, speaking for Doyle, says it was an example of Gard’s “divide and conquer” politics, of his penchant “to win at all costs.”
In 2003, Gard also set an all-time one-year legislative fundraising record. He collected more individual donations of at least $100 from outside his district – $227,708 – than ever raised by any legislative candidate in a single year in Wisconsin, according to the Madison-based Wisconsin Democracy Project, which tracks trends in campaign finance.
Gard also took in the most out-of-state donations among legislators – $15,025 – and the most contributions among legislators from road-building and transportation interests – $30,350.
Gard was raising so much special-interest money in so many cities – even during budget deliberations – that the Madison Capital Times, a persistent Gard critic, labeled him “John Gard, R-hustler” in a May 23 editorial headline.
The newspaper and Common Cause of Wisconsin, a government watchdog group, were particularly outraged by Gard’s attendance at a road-builder fundraiser in Janesville on May 19, 2003, as the Legislature was debating state transportation spending.
Says Jay Heck, executive director of Common Cause: “They [Assembly Republicans] gave the road builders everything they wanted in Joint Finance and then he went to Janesville to collect. It was an unbelievable quid pro quo.”
Gard dismisses Heck’s comments, saying it is not his job as speaker to please Madison liberals. He says the Capital Times always bashes Republican leaders. Doyle was raising money, too, Gard says, but didn’t get the same level of criticism.
Gard says he pays special attention to road building because he had always supported better transportation in Wisconsin and was protecting a $120 million Highway 41 improvement project back home – “meat and potatoes for my district.”
The 21-mile stretch of Highway 41 between Oconto and Peshtigo was congested and dangerous because it was the only remaining two-lane pavement “between Marinette and Miami,” says Gard.
The four-year expansion project set for a 2007 groundbreaking will create a four-lane, grade-separated, 65-mph freeway with bypasses around both Peshtigo and Oconto. The project includes roundabouts, two bridges, snowmobile trails and other amenities.
“I’ll fight to the death to get this road done,” says Gard. “I won’t stop until the ribbon is cut.”
Gard fumes at state Transportation Secretary Frank Busalacchi, accusing him of wanting to delay Highway 41, something Busalacchi’s office denies. And he points out that Busalacchi, before being named transportation secretary, helped craft the proposed $6 billion freeway expansion plan for Milwaukee and southeast Wisconsin, for which no funding has been set aside.
Once again bubbling up is Gard’s belief that the north is going to get shafted by the south, this time on major highway spending. “Milwaukee will always get theirs,” he says. “Frank is a nice guy, but he’s not for Peshtigo. I’ll be damned if he’ll get his project before I get mine.”
Gard says he had tried to convey the depth of his feelings about Highway 41 directly to Doyle in a meeting at the governor’s residence during the 2003 budget deliberations but felt that Doyle hadn’t really heard him. Gard describes the meeting as “a very ugly confrontation” but would not give details other than to say: “I think they underestimate the level I’m willing to go to fight to get this road done.”
Doyle’s press office declined two requests for an interview with the governor. However, Administration Secretary -Marotta says Highway 41 was on schedule and that a comprehensive transportation financing compromise had been worked out with Gard’s approval but that the speaker’s hard push for Highway 41 was typical of “extreme” positions Gard took in order to out-do Doyle politically.
The governor favors highway expansion but had the entire state to consider, says Marotta. “John wanted to show that he was a much better advocate for the road builders than the governor,” he says. “It’s like, ‘I’ve got to show [them] I’m even more supportive.’ It’s not, ‘Let’s work together.’ ”
State records show 31 fatalities on Highway 41 between Peshtigo and Oconto since 1994. Two were personal friends of Gard’s who died in crashes while commuting to work. The two-lane highway provided no margin for error, Gard says, calling the deaths “needless.”
He says he had promised the victims’ relatives that there would be no delays in the project when they looked him in the eye and said: “‘John, don’t ever forget.… Don’t let me down.’ ”
Gard chokes when recounting these stories. He says he doesn’t want any more people killed on Highway 41. His face flushed red, he motions his head sideways in the direction of his son, John. “It could be that little guy,” he says.
His final words to his critics about being too close to road builders? “Hey, I don’t care who it is that’s going to get this road done. I’m going to help them.”
Curiously, Gard’s concerns about highway safety haven’t slowed him down behind the wheel. Between 2000 and 2003, records show Gard received and paid three speeding tickets. One in Fond du Lac County in September 2000 led to a 15-day driver’s license suspension because Gard was clocked between 25 and 29 mph over the 55 mph limit. A speeding ticket in Dane County in February 2000 led to a second citation because an unpaid $21 parking ticket had automatically suspended the vehicle’s registration.
Gard says his speeding was due to “being spread too thin,” rushing between meetings with “a million things in your head.” He says the tickets were an embarrassment and joked that it was something else he had in common with Tommy Thompson, who had received a number of highly publicized speeding citations.
Some Capitol observers say Gard’s hard edges are a sign of the times.
“He’s a political creature to his core,” says Common Cause’s Heck. “He’s what’s happening with the whole Legislature. There’s no regard for the past.”
State Rep. Pocan, one of the Legislature’s two openly gay members, says Gard’s restrictive gay rights constitutional amendment was part of the Republicans’ “God, gays, guns and gimmicks” agenda.
“They should have been focusing on jobs and healthcare,” says -Pocan. “It’s ridiculous.” Gard micromanaged internal Assembly matters while pushing a far-right agenda of “fringe social issues” for a run for governor or Congress in two years. “He’s using it for his own purposes,” says the Madison Democrat of Gard’s speakership.
“He doesn’t like Democrats, he doesn’t like progressives and he doesn’t like people who are willing to challenge him,” says -Pocan, sounding like a latter-day reincarnation of Stan Gruszynski, who did battle with Gard back in 1987. “I sort of hit the trifecta with him.”
Gard’s response is completely dismissive: “The next good idea Marc Pocan has,” Gard says, “will be his first one.”
One longtime Capitol observer says that Gard was easier to talk to and seemed less ideological earlier in his career. “I never saw that right-wing agenda until he became a leader,” says the observer. The lure of the governorship has kept Gard moving to the right. “I think it’s a fundamental misreading of what you have to do to get elected statewide.”
Another Capitol insider says the evolution of long-serving legislators – Gard included – had diminished the Capitol.
“The full-time Legislature has bred a lack of talent on both sides of the aisle,” says the insider. “This is not the Legislature of John Shabaz or Bill Bablitch or Tom Loftus or Tim Cullen,” when more legislators had outside careers, spent less time at the Capitol and managed to work together. These days, it’s all politics all the time for many legislators. The result: “Every fight is a big fight.”
Marinette Mayor Doug Oitzinger had one of those big fights with Gard over state shared revenue in 2003, a dust-up that says a lot about how long grudges are carried in Gard’s district. Gard tried unsuccessfully during the 2003 budget discussions to change the shared revenue formulas – the lifeblood of poorer cities – so towns and suburbs would do better and cities like Milwaukee and Marinette would get less.
Gard says it was a matter of fairness. But aggrieved mayors, many of them Democrats, such as Milwaukee’s then Mayor John Norquist, complained bitterly. They smelled partisan politics because many towns and suburbs trend Republican. Again, Gard and his opponents were pointing fingers, and in the background, there again was that 1987 special election.
Oitzinger says he never got a promised return call from Gard even though shared revenue provided half of Marinette’s operating budget. So Oitzinger – mayor of the largest city in Gard’s district – had to fight for a better deal against his hometown legislator, who was also the first northern Wisconsin politician in years to have real budget power.
“Now we have a person representing our area, and we are fighting for our lives,” says Oitzinger. “It’s backwards. Backwards. It’s the triumph of party politics over trying to protect the communities you represent.”
Gard says he was trying to re-balance the funding because it sent too many dollars to cities, especially Milwaukee. “I represent a lot of towns,” he explains. “I’m a rural guy.” He claims it was Oitzinger who had brought partisanship to the battle. “Doug’s a Democrat first and a mayor second,” Gard says, pointing out that Oitzinger had been among Democrats who had tried to defeat him in 1987 and in subsequent elections.
Gard says Democrats and the City of Milwaukee would have only themselves to blame if they faced more cuts in state programs.
Call it Gard’s continuing promotion of the North Woods, call it the Revenge of the Blue Book Put-down. But Milwaukee, which relies heavily on state revenue sharing and school aid, would do well to grasp what motivates Gard because his agenda, philosophy and leadership are on the rise at the Capitol.
Gard and other out-state legislators believe they have done right by Milwaukee in supporting school choice and other initiatives for what they see as a troubled city. Yet they feel they’re unappreciated. For out-state legislators asked to vote and approve state aids for Milwaukee programs – often at the request of Democrats – the reward has been a two-step kick in the pants, says Gard. First they were attacked at election time by Milwaukee Democrats and the teachers’ union, sometimes with targeted ads, says Gard. Second, the same out-state legislators were getting hit in their home districts by voters who thought Milwaukee got too much state aid.
The outcome could be a deaf ear turned to Milwaukee. Ultimately, the Democrats will get no help, Gard says. “They put a gun to their head and pull the trigger every two years, and they just don’t get it.”
From a partisan point of view, Gard thinks Republicans are getting stronger – the more out-state legislators are attacked by Milwaukee Democrats, the more those attacks play into the Republicans’ hands.
And into his own agenda.
“They used to have 58 seats when I started,” says Gard of the Democrats’ Assembly membership. “They’re down to 40 now. And they could go even further.”
James Rowen, formerly a reporter with The Milwaukee Journal and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, worked as policy director and chief of staff for Mayor John Norquist. Rowen is now a Milwaukee-based writer.