After the latest controversy, Gov. Walker says he wants to scrap the board. It appears time is running out for Kevin Kennedy and the GAB.
It appears that this fall the Wisconsin state legislative sessions will focus on remixing the campaign oversight group. The timing is good for such a big project since the budget has been passed and Republicans still control both houses and the governor’s seat.
The GAB was created in 2007, when Democrat Jim Doyle was governor, to replace the Elections and Ethics Board. The Senate was controlled by Democrats at the time, but Republicans had the majority in the Assembly. The restructuring was indeed bipartisan. The old board had partisan appointments from both the left and the right, and appointments to the new board were designed to be non-partisan.
Retired judges are appointed by the governor to the six-member board in six-year terms, and to serve, an appointee cannot have made a partisan campaign donation in the prior year. Gov. Scott Walker has retained a couple of GAB members for his appointments, but he’s also starting to replace them. And while the State Senate is to confirm the appointments, they have not always done so.
But the future of the way the board is structured now seems even more in doubt. Last week, Walker told reporters he wants to scrap the board. Spokeswoman Laurel Patrick told the New York Times the governor “supports overall reform and an investigation into the actions of the Government Accountability Board.” She said Walker would support legislation to create “something completely new that is truly accountable to the people of the state of Wisconsin.”
One thing that did not change with the 2007 restructuring was its leadership. Kevin Kennedy still heads the organization, having recently celebrated 35 years with the oversight board.
When you hear Walker saying that the GAB needs to change, what’s really being said is that Kennedy needs to go. He’s glib in relaying that only four people from the GAB board need to vote to remove him. Remember: those four people are not supposed to have partisan allegiances.
In 2013 the board voted in closed session to coordinate an investigation against Walker for the fundraising in his recall campaign. That felt partisan and resulted in years of home raids and legal wrangling. When State Sen. Mary Lazich (R-New Berlin) inserted a request to audit the GAB in the previous budget cycle, that was certainly partisan. But when the Legislative Audit Bureau found several areas of concern? It’s tough to know. Some of the points the audit documented – failure to track felony voters or continuously audit electronic voting equipment – seem like legitimate criticisms.
Another surprise by Kennedy was that he attempted to convince his “professional friend,” IRS chief Lois Lerner, to help him investigate – some say target – conservative organizations in Wisconsin. True the Vote — a controversial national group focused on voter fraud that, in 2012, launched “Verify the Recall” in Wisconsin — was on that list. The organization recently sent an email lambasting Kennedy, reminding its supporters that True the Vote started their recall verification database after Kennedy had refused to release the recall petitions to the public.
Representative John Nygren (R-Marinette) and state Senator Alberta Darling (R-River Hills), co-chairs of the Joint Finance Committee, have called for Kennedy’s resignation, saying “We have completely lost confidence that the GAB can be trusted to operate in a non-partisan manner for the citizens.” Ironically, they are also the legislators who slipped the clause into Motion #999 that would have wiped out open government records in Wisconsin.
Two things to watch as this moves forward: 1) Timing. Since Wisconsin’s presidential primary election is on April 5, the situation will need to be resolved well in advance. Remember how voter ID was put on hold by SCOTUS because of those November elections? Expect something similar to take place. 2) State Representative David Craig (R-Town of Vernon). One Wisconsin insider who asked to remain anonymous says Craig is well versed in all things GAB, and is asserting a leadership role on the subject.
One thing remains certain: Kennedy won’t resign. That’s why the next legislative session will see a push to reorganize the GAB. He will surely sue to keep his job, and though it’s possible that a Dane County court could initially rule in his favor, eventually, the change will likely be upheld by the State Supreme Court. This Kabuki dance is now central to Wisconsin political change. It’s too bad Kevin Kennedy won’t save taxpayers the money it will cost to oust him and go find a job with his “professional friend” in Washington, D.C.