Why Republicans Hate Kevin Kennedy
The GAB director is an “embarrassment,” Assembly Speaker Robin Vos says. Embarrassing to who?
Assembly Speaker Robin Vos is on the warpath.
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.”
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.
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.