Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Is Jim Sensenbrenner America’s Cheapest Congressman?

By - Aug 30th, 2001 12:22 pm

It must be tough being married to James Sensenbrenner. Two elections ago his campaign brochure featured Sensenbrenner standing next to his wife, with the tag line “Jim Sensenbrenner is the cheapest man I know.”

We’ll pass by the ramifications of this for his home life and focus on the unique politics of Rep. F.(for Frank) James Sensenbrenner. The 58-year-old Republican has served Wisconsin’s Ninth District since 1978, and has consistently opposed spending, which is the major reason he ranks as the most conservative member of the Wisconsin delegation. Averaging his rankings from the National Journal over the last five years, as we did with Tom Barrett, shows that F. James is more conservative than 72% of his colleagues in the House. On social issues, he ranks as more conservative than 84% of representatives, which would help explain his zero rating from the American Civil Liberties Union.

Sensenbrenner’s overall average is less right wing than it might be because he’s a mushy moderate on foreign policy, where he is more conservative than only 59% of his colleagues.

Why is that? It seems Sensenbrenner is not a hawkish defender of American might. “I don’t vote for defense boondoggles,” Sensenbrenner says. “A lot of those [foreign policy] votes are on the shopping list of the Pentagon.” Sensenbrenner adds that he opposed such Bill Clinton initiatives as sending American troops to Yugoslavia.

“One of the reasons we had such a big budget deficit in the 1970s and 1980s is because Democrats couldn’t vote against social programs and Republicans couldn’t vote against defense,” he says. No such qualms for Sensenbrenner: he voted against both.

As a result, the longtime representative has been a darling of the National Taxpayers Union, winning its “Taxpayer’s Friend” award every year he has served, and ranking first among house members in three of those years and tied for first in three other years. When he first ran for Congress in 1978, “I said deficit spending is the biggest problem we face.” And he hasn’t changed his tune since then.

Flashy, he’s not. His campaign web site describes his “Solid Values, Solid Judgment, Solid Leadership,” as well as his “Solid Family.” This is not a man who likes liquids.

Sensenbrenner’s district includes Ozaukee and Washington counties and parts of several adjoining counties, and voters there seem to love their man’s frugality. He’s been reelected 11 times, grabbing 74 percent of the vote last year and 91 percent in 1998.

At left you can click on a full run-down of the rankings of every member of the Wisconsin delegation. Note the moderate rankings of Senator Herb Kohl, who was ranked as the most conservative Democrat in the Senate in 1999 by the National Journal. Not bad, Herb, but you have a long way to go to match Sensenbrenner.

THE SCHOOL BOARD PREZ SOUNDS OFF: Milwaukee School board president Lawrence O’Neil called and had some amazing things to say about superintendent Spence Korte. Speaking of the last board, where O’Neil was often in the minority, he says, “I think they should have found a more experienced superintendent [than Korte]. That was a big jump, from high school principal to superintendent. This is not a place for on-the-job training. ”

But Korte has now served for two years on the job. Doesn’t that make him pretty experienced by now? “I think he could use a lot of training,” says O’Neil. “Some board members don’t feel he should get as much salary as he is.”

Korte makes $150,722, about in line with the salary of $141,750 his predecessor Alan Brown was making at the time he left the job more than two years ago.

Nationally, big city school systems have had trouble recruiting superintendents. Korte has noted that with his experience, he would be very marketable. But O’Neill says “my own opinion is he would have trouble getting a superintendent job elsewhere.”

But Korte was offered the job of state deputy superintendent. “Oh, was he? I wasn’t aware of that. Well, I would say that [State Superintendent of Public Instruction] Libby Burmaster hardly knows the man. I don’t think [Burmaster’s predecessor] John Benson was interested in him.”

One knowledgeable observer of the board says that O’Neill and other board members are “unhappy that Korte is blocking their attempts at patronage. They want to be able to hire their friends and supporters.” One example the source mentioned was Dave Begel. Begel’s name has been floated to replace Karen Salzbrenner, who is resigning from her position handling media relations. Begel, who now handles media for state Sen. Gary George (D-Milwaukee), previously held the MPS media job some years back.

That may explain why some board members have suggested that the board needs to back off from attempts to micromanage the school system. “There’s some level of frustration on the superintendent’s part that the board members get involved in decision-making that they really shouldn’t,” says board member Joe Dannecker. “They’re really well below the policy-making level.”

Short Takes

The impact of Sue Dragisic is clearly being felt at United Way. Under its former president Henry Monaco, United Way limped along year after year raising the same amount of money, about $25 million. Dragisic, who oversaw huge increases in giving when she ran the United Performing Arts Fund, has taken the same ambitious approach at United Way. Last year’s drive topped $30.1 million and this year’s goal is $32 million, a 6.2% increase.

Bits and pieces: MATC still doesn’t have a president. The man the school hired, Darnell Cole, was supposed to start July 1. He then promised that, due to an operation, he would arrive six weeks late, but it’s now nine weeks and counting…. Gov. Scott McCallum‘s decision not to cut funding for the legislative caucuses could have been predicted. A governor who goes after funding for the legislature will simply start a war, and find the legislature cutting funding for the governor’s office….The newly hired president of the Milwaukee Public Museum, Roger W. Bowen, looks like he has impressive academic credentials, but lacks any fundraising experience, which is all but essential these days. That could cause problems for a museum that needs to replace declining county funding with private donations.

Parting Quote, from Lt. Governor Margaret Farrow: “When people ask what’s the biggest surprise about the job, I say it’s that I’m enjoying the job. I never expected that. I’m really having fun. It’s been wonderful.”

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