Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

The Rise and Fall of Polly Williams

By - Jun 27th, 2001 04:36 pm
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Time was when Rep. Annette Polly Williams (D-Milwaukee) was the star of the conservative talk circuit. In 1994, she made an astonishing $58,000 in honorariums and expenses – more than doubling her $35,070 salary as a legislator. She was on CNN and “This Week With David Brinkley,” and collected honorariums as high as $5,000 for speeches about school choice at the Hoover Institute, the California State Republican Convention and the National Conservative Summit. She was even flown to New Zealand to speak to the Auckland Institute of Technology.

From 1990 through 1997, Williams earned $163,000 on the conservative talk circuit. Last year she earned just $400.

From 1990 through 1997, Williams earned some $163,000 in honorariums and expenses, far more than any other legislator in Wisconsin. But since then, Williams has seen her extra income drop off drastically. “She’s off the conservative circuit,” says one close observer. Last year, Williams earned just $400 in expense money for one speech in Denver, Colorado.

Williams was the queen of school choice, the inner city Democrat who teamed up with a Republican, former Governor Tommy Thompson, to pass a law approving school choice in 1989, and expanding the program to include religious schools five years later. The legislation brought Williams national fame, yet today she often castigates both the choice program and its supporters. In the midst of the recent legislative debate on this issue, Williams accused choice proponents of exploiting black parents and children. If they wanted advice on how to improve their approach, Williams suggested, “They could call me.”

It seemed like an obvious slap at Howard Fuller, who leads the school choice movement, and now receives all the press and the speaking engagements that used to go to Williams. Fuller seems mystified by Williams’ opposition, and treads carefully in his comments. “In spite of the differences I have with her, it doesn’t dilute the respect I have for her and the gratitude I have for her for what she did in starting this movement.”

Michael Joyce, former President of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, which has been the key financial backer of the choice movement, says of Williams, “She was poised to be and could have been the leader of school choice. But she stepped aside and Fuller became the leader.”

Williams says she’s been misinterpreted by others. “They say, ‘Polly dropped the ball [on school choice] so we had to pick it up.’ Well, I didn’t drop no ball.”

Williams doesn’t deny she had a falling out with Joyce and other school choice proponents, but she reverses the blame. “I haven’t changed. The people around me have changed.”

Williams says she supported school choice as an experiment. “Our intent was never to destroy the public schools.” She says Joyce and others wanted to expand the program to middle class families by ending the income limits. “Joyce wanted to make it universal.”

“I regret the way Polly became disenchanted with program,” says Joyce. “She kept referring to it as a Catholic movement.”

But whatever Williams’ worries about possible expansion of the program, she offers no specific suggestions about how the current program should be changed. Her complaints seem vague and philosophical, for instance, that the program should be called “parental choice” rather than “school choice.”

Williams told Joyce “I don’t much like white folks.”

Joyce suggests race may have been a factor in Williams’ disenchantment. “She told me, ‘I don’t much like white folks.'”

Williams complains, “They had Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett coming here [to speak about school choice]. I said I’m not comfortable with how things are going.”

Some choice proponents suggest Williams also reacted negatively when Susan and George Mitchell were brought in as strategists by the Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce in the mid-1990s. Williams wanted funding from the MMAC herself, one critic says, though she denies this. It may not have helped that the Mitchells were well-known allies of Fuller.

The relationship between Williams and Fuller goes back 40 years, to when she was a senior and he was a freshman at North Division. Williams became a fierce opponent of Fuller’s school building referendum when he served as Superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. Fuller was reportedly angered by her opposition.

Fuller stepped down as superintendent in 1995, at a time when Williams had begun to express misgivings about religious school choice. For choice supporters, Fuller made the perfect replacement. Compared to Williams, he was a more charismatic speaker, a less mercurial personality and a uniquely powerful symbol: the former superintendent of big city school system declaring that only choice could save our cities.

Joyce quickly decided to use his Bradley money to help establish a plum position for Fuller at Marquette University, running the newly created Institute for the Transformation of Learning. The Bradley Foundation gave Fuller’s Institute $255,000 in 1997, $302,350 in 1998, $287,500 in 1999. Fuller also created the Black Alliance for Educational Options and has won prominent mention from or written op-ed pieces for publications across the country.

Meanwhile, the speaking engagements, extra income and media attention came to end for Williams. “Howard … is the person that the white people have selected to lead the choice movement now because I don’t cooperate,” Williams complained in 1998, a year in which she received just $622 in side income. “He cannot replace me. He cannot fill Polly Williams’ shoes.”

But to judge by her honorariums, he has.

Short Take

Diplomatic as ever, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Alan Borsuk wrote a story in the June 26th issue in which he criticized his newspaper for using the word “riot” to describe the disturbances at Shermanfest last weekend. But Borsuk preceded the point by telling readers the MJS was “an institution of which I am proud.” The newspaper’s editorial on the subject, however, offered no retractions or apologies for the article’s terminology.

Meanwhile, the company made significant cuts in its advertising force last week. You’ll find publisher Keith Spore‘s explanation for this in related documents.

This article was originally published by Milwaukee World.

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