Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

Why Republicans Hate Kevin Kennedy

The GAB director is an “embarrassment,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says. Embarrassing to who?

By - Nov 6th, 2014 10:32 am
Rep. Robin Vos, state Assembly Speaker.

Rep. Robin Vos, state Assembly Speaker.

Assembly Speaker Robin Vos  is on the warpath.

Vos (R-Burlington) is outraged by Kevin Kennedy, the executive director of the Government Accountability Board, calling him an “embarrassment” who “must go.”

And Vos was just getting warmed up. As our columnist Steven Walters reported, the Speaker also contends the GAB is a “dysfunctional” and “undemocratic” agency that also must be changed. Vos was essentially warning Kennedy to retire, or he will be dumped: “This was a public personal attack on a state official who has worked on elections for 35 years,” Walters noted.

Indeed, Kennedy is probably the most knowledgable person in the state on elections, and respected nationally for his his expertise, as former Circuit Court Judge and former GAB board member Gordon Myse once told the Madison weekly Isthmus.

Ohio State University law professor Daniel P. Tokaji has called Wisconsin’s GAB the “best American model” for how to oversee elections. While most other democratic countries have created “an independent election authority that enjoys some insulation from partisan politics,” Tokaji has written, in the U.S. “partisan election administration is the near-universal norm at the state level.” The one exception, he says, is Wisconsin’s GAB, whose members are former judges “chosen in manner that is designed to ensure that they will not favor either major party. This makes the GAB unique… in the U.S.”

The GAB was created though bipartisan legislation passed in 2007, and replaced the old state elections and ethics boards. These were paper tigers, toothless wonders that did little to prevent corruption in government. The classic example was the caucus scandal: Reporting by the Wisconsin State Journal showed the Democratic and Republican caucus staff members in the state legislature were political hacks who drew a salary to work on getting their bosses reelected – an obvious rip-off of taxpayers.

This was on open secret among Capitol insiders, yet the ethics board never did anything about the problem. The state elections board was no better: Its board was typically divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans, resulting in a stand-off on most issues. Myse, who also served on the elections board, told Isthmus “The board was composed of good and honorable people, but… we were always in stalemate. No productive action seemed to be possible.”

But the caucus scandal so embarrassed legislators that they had to take action, and the result was the creation of the Government Accountability Board, which took on the responsibilities of both the elections and ethics boards. Rather than stacking its board with party loyalists, the law called for appointees who were retired judges and would serve staggered six year terms.

They were nominated by a committee of state appeals court judges who are chosen at random: State Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson literally picked the nominating committee out of a hat. The committee gave its list of nominees to then-Gov. Jim Doyle, and from that list he picked six judges, and his choices had to be confirmed by a two-thirds vote of the legislature.

If anything, Doyle’s choices seem to skew in the Republicans’ favor. Three of the judges had no background in partisan politics. Three others did, and all were former Republican officials. Indeed, not one Republican legislator voted against Doyle’s choices. (Two Democrats voted no.)

Today, all but one member of the board has been appointed by Gov. Scott Walker, and the holdover, Thomas Barland, is a former GOP legislator who was appointed a judge by Republican Gov. Warren Knowles. Other members include Harold Froehlich, a former Republican Assembly Speaker, Judge Elsa Lamelas, a retired circuit court judge who was first appointed to that position by Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson, and Gerald C. Nichol, who served two terms as a  Republican District Attorney in Dane County. Only one board member has connections to the opposing party: retired Judge Timothy Vocke once served as a Democratic DA in Vilas County. But he’s a Walker appointee.

Walker, meanwhile, did not reappoint GAB member David Deininger. This was four months after Deininger and a majority of the board voted to join a John Doe investigation of possible violations by Walker’s campaign and independent groups. It seemed to be a message to the GAB not to get too aggressive.

Vos and the Republican critics of Kennedy have yet to charge him with not enforcing the law. And their one attempt to appeal a GAB decision was rejected in the courts. Republicans already have a GAB stacked with Republicans and Walker appointees, but it appears those retired judges care more about the law than the political agenda of the GOP.

As Myse has noted, Kennedy is a stickler for legalities: “Kevin’s leadership style is a soft glove. If the discussion goes off track, he brings everyone back to the basics, to the statutory requirements.”

Kennedy’s sin, in short, is that he insists on following the law.

Categories: Murphy's Law, Politics

20 thoughts on “Murphy’s Law: Why Republicans Hate Kevin Kennedy”

  1. PMD says:

    Hasn’t the GAB irritated and angered both parties? And isn’t that probably a good thing?

  2. Greg says:

    Can’t recall the GAB making a decision that angered the Dems.

  3. Bruce Murphy says:

    I don’t think equal anger is the measure, but following the law. That said, Kennedy has certainly angered members of both parties, as this story documents:

  4. PMD says:

    And what would Vos do about the GAB Bruce? Who would he replace Kennedy and other members with? Legislators who will do whatever party leaders want?

  5. David Blaska says:

    Of course, GAB is neck-deep in the armed, pre-dawn raids against the First Amendment rights of conservative speakers. That might be a factor, might it not?

  6. PMD says:

    Armed because law enforcement officers carry firearms? Well then yeah of course they were armed.

  7. A concerned citizen says:

    This is the same Robin Vos who was upset that Mark Lasry met with President Obama on his Mary Burke campaign stop.
    When will it ever end>>

  8. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Everyone in Mad city realizes that Kennedy is a partisan and has gotten away with it. Dems love him, GOP hates him.

  9. PMD says:

    I think you meant everyone who listens to and worships at the alter of Charlie Sykes. No worries. Easy mistake to make.

  10. Big Al says:

    Vos and the rest of the Republicans don’t like people stopping them from doing whatever they want, laws be damned.

    Without the GAB elections ethics would turn into a copy of redistricting – drawn for partisan benefit simply because they can. What are you poor little Democratic voters going to do about it?

  11. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I can see that the next 4 years will be just one long whine and stupid talking points, not worth looking at.
    You lost, badly, live with it. come up with good ideas that will improve education, reading and everyone will listen. if you just whine to put in more money without any improvements no one will listen.. People have spoken.

  12. Bruce Thompson says:

    I don’t know whether or not your statement is true, but if true, and given that the GAB board members skew Republican, wouldn’t that imply that Republicans are the ones testing the boundaries?

  13. Gee says:

    WisConDig, from your mouth to Vos’ ear, as he already has moved on to “improve education” with his curricular review today of the UW campuses. He has declared an end to courses on “ancient mating habits of whatever.”. And, yep, everyone is listening in the UW, youbetcha. So, across our fair state, from Ray Cross’ office to minions at dozens of campuses, the hunt is on for who in heck ever approved Whatever Studies. And the memo is being drafted to cancel, forthwith, all spring sections of Ancient Mating Habits 101. (Estimated savings to taxpayers: zero.)

    Tomorrow, Vos will continue his crusade, with replacement of pinheaded PhD’s as faculty by, instead, instructors who can bring real-world experience into the classroom. The contract also is being drafted to offer a new and more modrun course called Current Mating Habits to some out-of-work former legislator from Waukesha County, so he needs that letter of reference from you soon.

  14. old baldy says:

    Maybe Blaska can be appointed the new head of whatever replaces the GAB. He is certainly independent, in favor of free speech, and has never has a partisan thought in his life.

  15. tim haering says:

    I worked with Kevin Kennedy a little on the Kettl Commission on campaign finance reform. Forgot about that one, didn’t ya? The centerpiece was a real time electronic filing system. Kennedy was hyped on that, ready to devote resources to build it in-house. I sensed that he’s a Big GOvt guy, thrilled by the control, regulation. Not in a partisan sense. He wasn’t pro-Democrat or anti-Republican, he seemed skeptical of political motives. But he is hands-on, and I suspect VOs would like hands off. Me too. Citizens United is fine with me. I have filters for all those smoke screens. Be interesting to see what VOs has in mind.

  16. wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    Bruce, you Chisholm, Landgraf and the Journal sure look stupid now and the DA is looking pretty crooked. They have been for 40 years.

  17. Big Al says:

    WCD – “I can see that the next 4 years will be just one long whine and stupid talking points, not worth looking at.”

    Sounds like your ever-present commentary on this site.

  18. Paula Marie says:

    Oh this is good. Vos wants a non-partisan panel appointed by a political party. They already have control of the legislature, the governor’s office and the WI Supreme Court, but that’s not enough. Now they want to control the board that deals with ethics and elections so they can get away with yet more unethical behaviors. Wisconsin is going down the tubes in a big hurry. No wonder so many good, intelligent people are thinking of moving to MN where the Dems are in control, the economy is much better, where teachers are respected and education is a priority.

  19. Wisconsin Conservative Digest says:

    I love the smell of Liberals whining in the morning”

  20. Rich says:

    Why can’t people be more aware of crap like this when it is time to vote for people like Robin Vos?

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