Steven Walters
The State of Politics

Legislature is One Big High School

Once you understand that, you realize why Republicans tolerated Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer.

By - Mar 24th, 2014 09:53 am
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Several years ago, a fellow Capitol reporter said it best: “This building is just one big high school.”

The Capitol has got scared, nervous freshmen – first-term lawmakers and aides who also have never before worked in the building. “Exactly where is my office … the restrooms? What’s a ‘third order of business’? A ‘quorum call’?”

It’s got sophomores, who are beginning to flex their lawmaking muscles and learning how far to push, who will push back, when to back off and who can and cannot be trusted, whether in session or during off-hours. “The Cold Beer and Warm Pizza Committee will convene. Clerk, call the roll.”

It’s got we-know-everything juniors, who can’t wait to push seniors out the door so they can run the place. “When I’m in charge, that will not happen. But this will…”

And those wacky seniors. They’ve seen it all, good and bad. They want to leave a legacy – something to share with the kids – or grow up and be the principal, which is another word for governor.

Capitol High School, you might call it. It has cliques, outcasts and Boys and Girl scouts. Leaders of Bible studies work with – and sit next to – Type A dysfunctionals. Like some high school students, they often drink – but always legally.

And geeks? It was the Assembly’s CPA or Certified Public Accountant caucus that went through the financials and found the UW System was sitting on an $800-million surplus. That resulted in a two-year tuition freeze on all 26 campuses.

And alumni? Dozens of them lead the equivalent of Capitol High booster clubs, lobbying (and providing campaign donations to) current students to do them favors for the special-interest groups that pay these alumni very, very well.

One other reason why the Capitol is one big high school: There are no secrets. Everybody pretty much knows who is dating, flirting or dissing who – and how often. One male state senator who left office more than 10 years ago delighted in privately sharing who in the Capitol was trysting with someone not their spouse. That senator was so focused on others’ moral lapses that a reasonable conclusion was that the senator had his own dalliances.

Bill Kramer

Bill Kramer

If you follow the Capitol High School analogy, that’s one way to explain what happened to former Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer: The first-string blocking back on the state-ranked football team got thrown off the team.

Trained as a CPA and lawyer, the 49-year-old Waukesha County Republican was a bully: crude, quick-witted and willing to publicly embarrass other legislators. Maybe he wasn’t that talented, Kramer rarely had a good run or caught a pass, but he was sure good at blocking for all those stars in the Big Game. So when Kramer said stuff other Assembly Republicans agreed with, but were afraid to say, they privately cheered him on.

But, when he allegedly groped a female Assembly staffer and made repulsive comments to a female lobbyist, his fellow Assembly Republicans quickly stripped Kramer of his leadership role, asked that he not run again and said, if he does run again, he’ll face a primary challenge.

He’ll keep the concealed weapon permit that allowed him to carry a gun on the Assembly floor, however.

The result? Kramer’s Capitol High diploma will be in the mail. Nobody wants him to do the cap-and-gown stage walk.

Finally, one personal Capitol High School story. Several years – and one job – ago, my two best friends in the Capitol press corps asked to speak with me privately. Did I know about the rumor that I had been seen out in Madison one night with a certain woman state senator?

I broke up laughing, because I have never been alone in a room – inside or outside the Capitol – with that state senator. (In the 1970s, covering Iowa’s capitol, I learned to never mix reporting with your social life. But that’s another column.) My friends were worried, though, that the rumor would hurt my non-partisan credibility in the Capitol – something I had worked hard to protect since being assigned to cover it in 1988.

For a long time, I wondered how such a false rumor could get started. Suddenly, I knew the answer: My wife looks like that senator, especially if you’ve had two, three, five or six drinks. That’s especially true, I’d guess, if you’re the sort of legislator or staffer who likes to start rumors about another Capitol High School classmate.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Email

2 thoughts on “The State of Politics: Legislature is One Big High School”

  1. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    It is actually worse than that. In the 60’s and 70’s we had adults working there, now it is all these kiddies, one election and they are experts on everything, but really not know anything.

  2. Bob Johnston says:

    After working in the Assembly for 23 years, all I can say is: brilliant analogy. Well done.

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