Thursday, January 29, 2009

Deuce Coup?

More than a crowded field of candidates with similar platforms, more than a seasoned incumbent unafraid to mince words and more than being arguably the most conservative candidate in an overwhelmingly liberal district of Madison, Sherman Hackbarth had one thing really working against him at the League of Women Voters "Know Your Candidates" taping Friday night: alphabetical order.

On a list of candidates for the second city council district that reads Dennis deNure, Sherman Hackbarth, Brenda Konkel, Bridget Maniaci and Adam Walsh, Hackbarth had the challenge of having to follow up the comments from fan favorite frequent flyer Dennis deNure, who stole the show in terms of entertainment value to say the least.

Asked what he thought needed to be done to tweak the city's Metro bus system, deNure launched into an explanation of his plans to renovate State Street's Peace Park into a carousel park or a ferris wheel park or a cow-petting zoo and the America's Dairyland Museum. At deNure's conclusion and a nod from the moderator, the camera panned to Hackbarth, who paused for a moment, blinked, then managed a noble "...okay..." before getting his legs back under him and continuing with the segment.

It seemed a cruel trick of his birthname that Hackbarth should have to repeatedly follow a man whose opening statement began, "Do not vote for me. Vote for one of the others. Button man here even has a button that says 'Don't vote for me!' My goal is to create a forum for the best downtown plan imaginable, the museum mile program."

Then, he proceeded to list off a sleugh of museum concepts he would like to see settled along State Street. The notes I took from my seat in the audience read verbatim as follows: "Plans for a whole lot of different museums... Seriously, presented like 60 different museum ideas... The guy really likes his museums..."

But for all his oddities, the other three challengers to Brenda Konkel's four-term seat on the city council could take notes on two of the features of deNure's presentation: the formulation of a palpable plan and an ability to make it stick out in an observer's memory. I guarantee there will be people tuning into the city channel's broadcasts and webcasts of the segment just to view and re-view deNure's response to a question about working with neighborhood associations, "At my blog you'll find pictures of Josh Groban. I'm a big fan. I can't wait 'til he plays at Overture Hall."

I'm not saying that Hackbarth, Maniaci and Walsh should all act insane. I'm saying they're up against an established, recognizable, respected firebrand of a candidate with a long record of achievements with the city, and whichever one of them stands out the most will likely survive the primary to face off against Konkel in the general election.

In all likelihood, Konkel is going to carry the most votes in the February 17 primary. While the criticism often levelled at her is she alienates too many people, she has a solid base of support in and outside the district. While I haven't personally made up my mind in terms of who to vote for, I admire her passion and dedication and would like to see her make it through the primary.

She certainly didn't try to play down her record of butting heads, which her opponents have criticized. "I think I've worked hard, I've been strong-willed and strongly opinionated from time to time," she said during the taping. "But I think a strong, passionate experienced (alder) is what we need right now."

It seems likely a lot of uncommitted voters will justify voting for her in the primary just to ensure she has a chance to defend her seat mano-a-mano.

This leaves three very similar, qualified candidates vying for one slot on the April ticket.

I half-joked earlier that Hackbarth is the most conservative on the ticket, but truth be told it would take a microscope to determine who falls further to the right or left on the spectrum. Maniaci and Walsh seem to fly their "lefty creds" higher and louder than Hackbarth, but the latter does live in a co-op. You can't exactly slap a "Ronald Reagan" label on that.

Not that this (or any) race should be about left versus right anyway. What the candidates need are their own "museum miles," a handful of issues and the specific plans to back them up the candidates can hang their hats on.

Walsh has captured some attention by championing the cause of declining enrollment at Lapham Elementary School, saying the neighborhood needs to draw in more young families to fill the school. It sounds great in principle, unless it means driving UW students, young professionals (like myself) and other renters out of Tenney-Lapham like Alder Julia Kerr has tried to do in the Vilas neighborhood.

Likewise, a lot of people admire Maniaci's pledge to rejuvinate businesses along East Johnson Street, turning it into a thriving economic pocket like Monroe Street. But if increasing foot traffic to the businesses entails decreasing speed limits, switching to two-way traffic (as Konkel has suggested) and generally obstructing East Johnson and East Gorham, she could lose a lot of support real fast from people who live in the neighborhood, enjoy what the neighborhood has to offer, but also like being able to get out of the neighborhood in a hurry when they have to for work or other reasons.

Hackbarth, for his part, has shied away the least from criticizing Konkel's combative style, but otherwise has staked his campaign more in vague promises of "effective, efficient public services." It's understandably tough to lay out a point-by-point action plan when one is pledging to act as a conduit of the people's will, but unless a candidate defines which people and what will he's channeling, the electorate is liable to be mistrustful.

Nobody is going to argue with any of these three causes on principle -- they're good ideas for the neighborhood. Rather, where the questions come up is on how to best execute them and which causes to prioritize.

Of course, all these questions would be most easily answered by a substantive debate. Coincidentally, the Tenney-Lapham Neighborhood Association is holding a two-hour candidate forum Thursday, February 5th, 7:00 PM at the Lapham School, 1045 East Dayton Street. While not as specific in answering some of the questions voters might have as would be desirable, the Know Your Candidates forum provides a good primer for the neighborhood forum, as well as some grand entertainment from deNure.

As the candidates and their platforms continue to evolve, the answers to Deucers' questions will most assuredly become more specific. While Maniaci, Walsh and Hackbarth each hold similar views, the candidate best able to connect the dots from where district two is to where district two could be will have the biggest leg up in the race to challenge Konkel.

Special thanks to Emily Mills at the Lost Albatross for developing a Rumble in the Deuce graphic that doesn't suck.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Habitual Drunkards

In America's Kegerator, defining the term "habitual drunkards" is something of a Herculean feat. Yet that's just what the Madison Mayor's office and other city officials hope to do to utilize an ancient state law that prohibits selling booze to problem alcoholics in the city.

Most cities and officials are completely unaware the provision even exists. But Katherine Plominski, Madison's Alcohol Policy Coordinator, says the framework to allow the city to deny boozehounds their booze, something Madison has long sought to do, has been contained in a state law all along.

The statute itself appears to be gleaned from Part I, Title XV, Chapter 66, Section 1558 of the Revised Statutes of the State of Wisconsin, passed by the state legislature in 1883. It notes a number of conditions that liquor license holders must meet, lest they be summoned before city officials to show cause why their liquor license should not be revoked.

Plominski didn't say precisely how her office came across the statute, but the image from the Simpsons episode where the town re-enacts prohibition springs to mind. I imagine the city of Madison has a little old man with a visor and a great, dusty volume spread open in front of him, reading, "And he who shall violate this law shall be punished by catapult."

Plominski told me Friday she doesn't watch the Simpsons, so I don't think she quite levelled with me on the humor in the situation. She does, however, have a serious problem with regular drunks on her hands, which is why the idea is so appealing to her.

"We were having a lot of meetings where we were talking about this list of chronic alcoholics," she told me. "The police know them by name, they have contact with them reguarly... And these people are raking up all sorts of citations."

She even mentioned one individual who has been sent to the detox center more than 50 times in less than a year. If it were illegal to serve this person, she contends, he could be forced to dry up, he could choose to go elsewhere or he would at least have a harder time of getting his hands on his poison of choice.

The city of Green Bay, Plominski noted, has been using the same provision in state law for nearly a decade. There, the police decide whose name winds up on the "problem drunk" list, and they distribute it to all the liquor license holders in town.

But Madison's administration would like the process to be more formalized than that, Plominski explained. There would be a series of standards, including a set number of detox trips or police citations, to determine what constitutes a "habitual drunkard." There would also be an appeals process put in place to make sure no one is unfairly denied their right to booze.

In order to establish these criteria, Plominski would like to see an ordinance put before the city council. Her hope is to get the criteria passed, a list developed and names and photos distributed to all liquor venders by springtime: "before we start to see these issues in our parks," she said.

"A lot of these (retailers) don't want to sell to these people," Plominski said, "but they don't have an excuse not to. They're looking for a reason to tell them no."

While a proposal has yet to be introduced before the common council, Plominski says the city's legal staff has already given it the go-ahead nod, saying the city has statutory ground to stand on in pursuing such an ordinance.

This issue has not yet gotten any media play in Madison. We'll be officially "breaking" the story on AM 1670 WTDY Monday morning (I don't get to break a lot of stories as a radio reporter, so it feels good to get one every once in a while), and I assume the papers and TV stations will take it and run with it in a day or two.

I personally haven't had a lot of time to mull it over yet. I do think it's an interesting, kind of sideways approach to a tricky problem, but I would certainly like to see the criteria of what defines a "habitual drunkard" on paper before I weigh in either for or against the proposal.

I just can't escape the feeling we'll need to call in Rex Banner to enforce the ordinance, if it goes through.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

I think it's fair to call me a self-hating journalist. For two years, I hosted a radio show that made a weekly routine of satirically pointing out the shortcomings of the Modern American Mediascape, in spite of the fact that I was working professionally as a newspaper reporter for half that time. Even now, I stay very well aware of the media's shortcomings, and my own. There are plenty of both to go around, and the only way I know to fix them involves, first, being very cognizant of them.

We're still trying to figure out that second step though.

Yet in spite of everything the Modern American Mediascape lacks right now, and the endless democratic potential a mass medium like the internet presents, I can't help but be increasingly alarmed by the precipitous decline in advertising and subscription revenues being felt across the board by the traditional media and the resulting staffing cuts and business failures. I'm not just saying this because my already meager paycheck is threatened, either.

One of the criticisms myself and others have levelled since Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz started keeping a blog is that his entries have often seemed little more than press releases about city policy written in the first person. I stopped reading after a couple posts, but when we were chatting about the sweeping layoffs in the media lately at a press conference Friday, Channel 3's Jessica Arp told me to check out Mayor Cieslewicz's most recent entry.

I'll post it here, as the city is not yet archiving the mayor's blog. I do think, though, he makes some very poignant and heartfelt points about the danger this systematic dismantling of the media poses to our society.

"Criticize Me, Please

Vikki Kratz once wrote that, "(Madison) has never experienced such a surge in national popularity - and it clearly has Dave Cieslewicz to thank." That line appeared in a longer column all of which took a similar tone. I thought it was so great that I had it framed, and it sits in a place of prominence in my office. Of course, the only problem with that column was that it was a satire. She wrote it and presented it to me with much fanfare after I said that all I wanted in the new year was a single kind word in her column.

Vikki, Isthmus' city beat columnist, has left the revered weekly to be a teacher. Isthmus has said that it will fill in with stringers and staff writers, but apparently no regular city beat writer like Vikki or the incomparable Melanie Conklin before her. Meanwhile, down Fish Hatchery Road, Madison Newspapers is laying off something like a dozen staff, and we're starting to see the blurring of bylines between the State Journal and the Capital Times. And television news reporting is hurting too as ad sales decline.

None of this is a good thing for anybody. Overall, I think I'm treated pretty fairly by the press. But when I do have a complaint I can call reporters and editors with whom I have a common language. I can challenge their sources or question if a quote was in context. I can argue with them about the placement of a story or the emphasis placed in a headline. The job of professional journalists is not to treat me well but to treat me fairly. The job of the press is to challenge people in positions like mine, to ask them difficult questions when necessary and to keep after them until they get answers. It's my responsibility to keep government transparent and it's in part their job to keep after me to do mine.

So, from my point of view the press can be a pain, they can even be infuriating some times, but they're also a vital part of democracy. So, when I see the news media bleed profits and people, there's plenty of cause for concern. A big part of the problem is the web. Media outlets haven't quite figured out the business model that makes web advertising pay enough to support the same staffs they had when most people read news on actual paper.

Of course, the new world isn't all bad. It used to be that you needed a big printing press, tons of paper and barrels of ink to deliver the news. That favored a handful of people with the capital to produce newspapers or, later, to own radio and television stations. The number of people who could afford media voices was pretty limited. But now the entry bar for providing information is so low that just about anybody can do it. So there are more voices then ever. That's a good thing. But professional news gatherers and the standards they bring to their craft are getting fewer. That's a bad thing.

It could be that when all of this sorts itself out the marketplace will work. Maybe there is enough of a market for professionally gathered, professionally edited news that news outlets will thrive again. After all, a lot of us rely on reporters to provide us with accurate information, and we rely on editors to help us sift through what's important and what's just chatter. With all the clamor out there now, that could become more important then ever. Maybe. Or we could just see professional journalism continue to diminish and be drowned out by a kind of Wikipedia world where anything gets tossed out there and we all just hope that a cacophony of voices will self-correct misinformation.

In the meantime, Vikki Kratz probably made the right career choice for herself. (Dealing with third graders might in fact be easier than dealing with me and the Madison City Council.) But that's too bad. I was hoping someday I'd get this job right and that maybe she'd write that I really did deserve credit for a surge in national popularity for our city. It wasn't likely to happen, but a guy could dream. Good luck, Vikki."

I can think of few people in the city of Madison who could have bigger beefs with the media than Mayor Cieslewicz right now, and while I may criticize, I give him all the props in the world for these sentiments. While his job could conceivably be a whole lot easier if the media were to simply vanish into the vacuum, he's big enough to recognize that with it would go democracy as we know it.

And if more people shared the mayor's sentiments on this topic, "fixing" the Modern American Mediascape would be a whole lot easier. Thank you, Mayor Cieslewicz, for finally letting a bit of the man behind the tie shine through.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

I Was Wrong

Nobody had to tell me I could expect to see and experience strange things while I was in California. I may be a smalltown rube, but I watch the TV, damnit!

But there's the kind of strange you expect to see, there's the kind of strange that catches you across the jaw like a left hook, and then there are things that just don't make any damn sense. And I'll admit, for the first twenty seconds after we pulled up at this stoplight in downtown San Francisco, I was so dumbfounded, the notion of taking a picture escaped me. I only managed to quickdraw my camera and snap a photo after the light turned green.

Now I spend a good amount of time shooting my mouth off, and as such, I expect to spend some time with my foot occupying space in said orifice. But, damnit, I should never have had to take back these words, taken from a rant I posted last summer decrying what I perceived as an abuse by Madison's parking enforcement division.

"...another glorious thing about being on a (motor)bike is that, if someone isn't using the entirety of a parallel parking spot, you can pull into the unused portion and park there.

So when I arrived at the Dane County Board of Supervisors meeting this evening, I was thrilled to spy an open sliver of a spot directly across the street from the City-County building the meeting was at. There was a gray van parked there, but I pulled in behind it. I didn't notice the handicapped tags on the van. I didn't notice the handicapped parking sign..."

"...And if I had in some way inconvenienced someone who had a deserved right to that spot, I would take a deep breath, clutch my manhood in one hand and my wallet in the other and pay the fine without complaining.

But WHO in HELL was I inconveniencing by using up the remaining three feet of that parallel parking spot? When I emerged from that horrid meeting three and a half hours later, the same gray van was parked in front of me, so it's not like any passing disabled motorist even got the impression the spot was claimed. And what other use was there for the remaining space I took up?"

And in this perplexing photo, I suppose we have found the answer to my rhetorical question. Somewhere out there on the coast, there is a rider on a green dirt bike with a disabled sticker on his M-Class vehicle. I don't understand how it might possibly work, but I will admit that this person had a legitimate claim to the space I took up.

I apologize, black-clad mystery rider. Now if you would kindly explain to me how it was you qualified for that little blue tag when you're clearly able to control and support a 200-pound piece of machinery between your legs, I would be much obliged.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Power Tripping

Happy Obama Day, all. As we've all been historical significance-ed nearly to death, I'll let the event pass simply by noting how pleased I was to refer to "Former President George W. Bush" on the air today. It has a nice ring to it.

But it's official: I'm exhausted from relaxing so hard.

My last-minute power vacation to northern California was a raging success, don't get me wrong. I found out the other week I had some vacation time to burn before the end of the month, so I called up my buddy Bryan in San Jose and asked "pretty please" if he was still up for hosting me for a long weekend as we'd been discussing.

He was. In fact, he should probably go into business giving tours, because the man had a plan, we stuck to the plan, and we cram-a-lammed a whole lot more fun into four nights than we had any right to.

I flew out of Madison early Thursday morning, cussing under my breath the whole way until the negative-45-degree windchills and snowy fields fell away under a blanket of clouds. On the way out, I plowed through local writer Emily Mills's first (published) novel, The Fix Up, which was a fantastic, quick read. Mills flaunts a dark sense of humor she seldom gets to exhibit in her regular blog posts, trots out an intriguing, likeable character in Chapel, then spends 136 pages making the reader wonder what Chapel ever did to Mills. Watching as the character responds to the increasingly sordid circumstances that seem to stalk her, never triumphing but certainly never beaten, leaves me wanting a lot more of Chapel than 136 pages.

As such, it's become my mission to get my eyeballs on the short film the novel serves as a backstory to. If I catch up with Mills at a bar sometime, I will have a sharpie in hand so as to get my copy of The Fix Up autographed before, not too long from now, people are standing in lines at bookstores to do the same.

It's a good read, and they're selling it at A Room of One's Own on Johnson Street. I also plan to work the phrase "drinking totally ironic forties" into my regular vocabulary.

I got down in San Jose, met Bryan and then promptly knocked one item from near the top of my lifelong to-do list: I ate at an In-and-Out Burger. It was everything I'd hoped and more.

Then, we trucked it out to a golf course in the hills to the east of the Silicon Valley for what was arguably the worst 17-and-a-half holes of golf I've played since my first round out. It didn't help matters that I hadn't swung a club since July. Nor was it of any assistance that the course was on a mountainside -- thus, on the rare occasion I placed a shot in the fairway, it would unfailingly roll off.

But after notching four above par on my first hole, a relatively straightforward 400-yard par four, I informed Bryan I was only going to be scoring the holes I was happy with.

By the time it got too dark to spot a ball (hence the 17-and-a-half holes of golf), my scorecard read like War and Peace written in the Wing-Dings font. Aside from two bogeys and a hard-fought par, I instructed Bryan to score me two parallel exclamation points, a question mark, an infinity symbol, a null set sign, a radioactive symbol, a hammer and sickle, a frownie face, and a snowman complete with arms and a corncob pipe, among others, on varying holes. Turns out, Bryan is very good at detail work with a golf pencil.

We set out early on Friday for San Francisco and spent the day drinking in the city (Post-post writer's note -- this is not to mean "imbibing" in the city, but rather experiencing it... the imbibing came later). I honestly haven't walked so much since I was a student. We made our way into Chinatown for lunch, then marched up to Union Square, where we satisfied my pathological need to view cities from a tall place by walking into a hotel we were clearly not staying at and abusing their 32-story glass elevator (see previous blog post).

Then, we meandered back to Washington Square, where we watched some people throw frisbees for dogs and chatted with a guy named "Irish Pete" who, as far as we could tell, made his living hanging out in the park and sketching. After declining his generous offer to smoke us up, we popped down to Fisherman's Wharf, where the stench of tons and tons of fish was curiously absent. Disappointed by the lack of wharfishness, we boarded our ferry to Alcatraz Island and took the night tour there, then came back to the waterfront for dinner, which was NOT disappointing.

We crashed with a friend's sister (I spent the night calling Anna the "West Coast Mary Beth") a block off historic Haight Street and sampled the night life. After staying out until bar time, we were up again early on Saturday to drive somewhere we could continue drinking: Sonoma!

Now, I had never really considered myself much of a wine person -- more a beer-whiskey-brandy-rum-and-so-help-me-god-tequila kind of person. But then again, I had never been to the Sonoma Valley before.

We started the afternoon with a tour of the Benzinger Family Winery, which was phenomenal and speech-sluringly educational. Through the tour, we also received a pass for a free tasting at the sister winery, Imagery Wines, a mile up the road. As that was where the bartenders were most generous with the samples, that is where we spent most of our time. I even invested a tidy sum in having a few bottles of whatever-it-was-I-really liked shipped back to Madison. Being unfamiliar with wine terms and a little schnookered at the time of purchase, I don't quite remember what it was I bought, just that I'm going to be really happy when it arrives.

The countryside was gorgeous, and the land, people and rural atmosphere reminded me a lot of Wisconsin. We topped off the afternoon with a stop at the Mayo Family winery and, fully hammered, drove back into Sonoma proper to sober up some, have dinner and then trek back to San Jose to go to the bars, where I spent the night hassling the bartender about the fact that there were only TWO varieties of beer on tap. My Wisconsin sensibilities were deeply offended.

Sunday, verging on exhaustion, we opted to ignore common sense and spent another long day road-tripping to Santa Cruz, where Bryan tried like hell to teach me to surf. It wasn't so much his failure as mine that resulted in a number of salty-tasting faceplants, but I had fun anyway learning that surfing is indeed not as easy as it looks. After lunch at a little Mexican restaurant a block from the beach, we took the long way back and cruised Highway 1 along the Pacific Coast, stopping at a beach along the way to gawk at the ocean.

Bryan's co-worker Preethi joined us for the day, and invited her friend Sharon out to the bars with us that night. Chaos and hilarity ensued, and we'll just say it was a damn miracle I was able to get to the airport in time to catch my 12:10 back to Wisconsin.

All in all, a great trip, but I'm already feeling hard-pressed to readjust to the work grind. It's a busy week, with city council tonight, the first session of the Madison Citizen's Police Academy tomorrow, a basketball game I have to do commentary for on Thursday and some kind of city council election information taping Friday night. I'll certainly be posting updates on the academy and another segment of "Rumble in the Deuce" about the taping, so as Paul Harvey says, "Stand By For NEWS!"

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Vacation Update

Hello from San Francisco!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Allegedly "Progressive" Talk

Are you ready for some biased media commentary? I didn't shed a tear, didn't furrow my brow, didn't even blink today at the news of major upcoming format changes at Madison's "Progessive" Talk, the Mic 92.1.

I know, right? Stop the presses, we've got a story for page one! "Local News Anchor Not Sad to See Competition Start to Fold." Somebody's sure to notch a Pulitzer on their belt for this one.

Well, before you write me off as completely irrelevent, dripping with bias, let me fill you in on some background here.

On February 1st, I'll have worked at AM 1670 WTDY for a whole year. Prior to that, I worked at the newspaper in Portage, which entailed a 45 minute commute to and from work every day. This left me plenty of time to listen to talk radio, and after switching back and forth from WTDY to the Mic for months, I finally settled on WTDY as my go-to station. The reason is as much a matter of principle as it is a matter of preference.

WTDY and a handful of other stations in Madison are owned by Midwest Family Broadcasting, a Madison-based company that has operated in the city for half a century and also owns stations in La Crosse, Springfield Illinois, Springfield Missourri and Benton Harbor Michigan.

As a company, our small locally-based operation competes primarily with Madison's Clear Channel Communications-owned stations, which include the Mic. For those unfamiliar with Clear Channel or its notoriety, try and imagine the business practices of McDonalds, Wal-Mart and the entire oil industry wrapped into one package and focused on radio and billboard advertising.

It was Clear Channel that lobbied for the massive ownership deregulations passed under the guise of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, then dropped a cool $30 billion to increase its nationwide radio station ownership to 1,200 -- the single largest conglomerate of AM and FM stations in the country.

Then, it was Clear Channel that began firing the on-air staff at smalltown radio stations across the country, and piping in voicetracked disk-jockeys that have never even been to the cities where their voices were heard. This practice, in addition to hamstringing local radio as a business and putting thousands out of work, also endangered dozens of lives in the 2002 Minot, North Dakota ammonia spill when no one was at the local radio stations to warn the populace to stay indoors.

It was Clear Channel that put together a list of songs following September 11, 2001 that were not to be played on the radio for fear that they might offend the populace or stir up dissent -- among the banned songs, Rage Against the Machine's entire body of work. It was Clear Channel that refused to display anti-war billboards or air paid commercials featuring anti-war mom Cindy Sheehan.

I barely acknowledge the Dixie Chicks as musicians, but when Clear Channel stations stopped airing their music following the band's public criticism of George W. Bush, I was pissed off as all hell.

Even before I worked for the competition, I couldn't ignore the flagrant hypocrisy of Clear Channel operating what they call "Madison's Progressive Talk." The progressive movement is one that's supposed to be rooted in the ideal of a locally-focused, uncensored public discourse.

Clearly, non-censorship is not one of Clear Channel's strong suits, but the Mic fails to meet the other tenets as well. Calling all-left, all-the-time talk radio a "discourse" does as much disservice to the term as Fox News has done to the concept of 24-hour news. I consider myself a moderate-to-left-leaning skeptical progressive when I don't have my reporter's hat on, but if I can listen to an hour of talk radio and not be upset by one thing I hear, I know I'm being pandered to.

It's not hard to see Clear Channel's original right-wing agenda behind left-wing talk. Sure, giving Al Franken a national pulpit eventually backfired when he was elected to the Senate, but for years, Republicans were able to dismiss his arguments as the irrelevent ramblings of a comedian-turned pundit when Air America could just as easily have filled his slot with someone with some real cred.

You can see the same in the Mic's morning lineup. Stephanie Miller isn't much more than a chattering, vacant floozy, discussing little of substance and spending half her program bubbling about the irrelevent goings-on in Hollywood. Ed Schultz has the potential to present a delectible conondrum as a "gun-totin', red meat-eatin' electric car-drivin' lefty," until you realize his corporate handlers keep too tight a leash on him to allow for any issue of legitimate depth to be discussed.

The closest thing the Mic had to a saving grace was their morning host, Lee Rayburn, who recently quit his post in Madison, as noted in the newspaper story above. He provided an interesting forum for local debate, but it wouldn't surprise me to discover he was driven out of his job. But with Rayburn the possible lone exception, every other piece of daily programming on the Mic is syndicated from elsewhere in the nation, sterile, safe and noncontroversial.

That's what has always perplexed me about the Mic's local following -- that a self-purported progressive city like Madison could rally around the obvious machinations of an evil empire like Clear Channel and turn its back on the locally-owned alternative. Up until budget concerns forced some massive cuts in November, WTDY was staffed by a set of live bodies at the microphone 13 hours a day, bringing a slew of differing, sometimes opposing, viewpoints on local and national issues to the airwaves. Management has assured me that as soon as we pull out of the slump, we'll be live and local all day again.

Having a radio station in town that broadcasts left wing views exclusively does little to combat the image of Madison as eighty square miles surrounded by reality. As a progressive, I welcome a challenge to my viewpoints almost as much as I welcome a substantive discussion, and the Mic rarely provided either.

I can't feel bad for the Mic's listeners as the corporate keepers in San Antonio, Texas retool what some Madisonians thought was "their" radio station. Given Clear Channel's record, it was a predetermined inevitability, and I like to think that this will serve as a wake-up call that a truly progressive radio station is one staffed by people you can bump into at a protest, on a barstool or in line at the grocery store.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Vigilante Parking Enforcement

Madison parking scofflaws on the isthmus -- you're on notice. I'm a hair's breadth from taking the law into my own hands, and while I'm generally pretty mild-mannered, I'm as restrained as Adam "PacMan" Jones in a strip club with a bad case of the Mondays when it comes to meting out vilgilante justice.

I don't live on a main thoroughfare -- far from it, in fact. That the city chooses to clear the snow off our little half-block of a side street at all should be cause for the residents to celebrate, but the plow drivers are not exactly being greeted by a ticker tape parade.

When the city's workers make the right turn onto Castle Place, they're finding cars parked willy-nilly, with no regard for the snow emergency parking regulations designed to allow plow drivers to clear each road curb to curb over the course of two nights. And now, I'm worried the city is a few snowfalls away from writing off our street altogether.

Once again this winter, owning an automobile in the heart of Madison has not been a piece of cake. Digging out occasionally and braving the winter parking regulations is par for the course, a part of the price drivers pay for the privilege of being independently mobile in a city that offers decent public transit options anyway.

Except it seems our city is plagued with a bunch of clueless deadbeats content to let their automobiles accumulate enough snow around their bases to build a good-sized fort. It begs the question whether people who only use their cars once every couple of weeks should be allowed to keep them on the street.

Do I begrudge your owning an automobile in the heart of the city? Absolutely not. But do I take serious issue if you're not willing to invest the time and effort to get your two-ton hulk of rust and rubber out of the damn way so our city crews can do their job and make driving easier for everyone?

Let me put it this way: leaving your car buried up to the quarterpanels in week old snow where I can see it with two parking tickets stuck under the wiper blade is inviting me to huck a molotov cocktail through the window.

My case in point is the bucket of bolts, rust-on-gray mini-van some probable child molester left parked right in front of my house for two weeks in December. Never mind that the owner left it parked in the same spot through the heaviest periods of snowfall we've gotten so far in this outrageous winter... and two declared snow emergencies! Never mind that the piece of trash was taking up prime parking real estate right off my front door step. Never mind that I was re-infuriated at the owner's lack on decency every time I walked past, or even looked out my front window.

What irks me the most is that, whether the van was eventually moved or towed, the amassed snow around its base remains, melted down by the brief warm spell, then re-frozen into foot-and-a-half crags of ice that make parking there a virtual impossibility for every vehicle known to man save an Abrams tank.

I wish I could say what I just described is a rare scenario, but a drive through downtown Madison will turn up an identical case every thirty to forty feet. What's worse, if too many cars are parked on one side of the street when a plow rumbles through, oftentimes the driver will have no choice but to simply clear the middle of the street, leaving the snow to accumulate on the side where people should be able to park.

This results in drivers having to park closer to the middle of the road, and when a few of THEM don't move their cars to allow the plow drivers through, the problem compounds itself and the roads begin to continuously get narrower. It's only mid-January, but it's already so bad on my street that I watched a plow squeak a single narrow lane between the rows of cars parked on each side of the road this weekend, with mere inches to spare on either side of the blade.

If my road gets any narrower, it's going to be unplowable, and then I'll really be in a car-torching mood.

It's winter. This is Wisconsin. Checking up on the vehicle every couple of days and moving it if necessary is the owner's responsibilty, no exceptions. While digging a car out after a snowstorm is no fun, if we're to be able to drive on our damn roads, we need to work together with the streets department to ensure they can do their job. If the threat of a sixty dollar parking ticket isn't enough to motivate one to do so, being able to move an ambulance or a fire truck down the street should be.

So this is my call to arms. You're either with me or against me, and those who shun our cause of passable streets hold their own personal property forefeit.

From here on out, the rules are as such. Those who fail to comply with the snow emergency alternate side parking rules are subject to have their finish keyed and their windows egged. Failure to comply with the city's 48-hour street storage rule when there's a fresh layer of snow on the ground not only risks a ticket, but also broken sideview mirrors.

After the third day of abandonment, a heavy boot to the quarter panel becomes acceptable. If a car has been buried to its lugnuts in snow for four days, the radio antenna may be pried off -- likewise for the windshield wipers on day five, and the gas hatch or any spoilers and other such adornments on day six.

If a car is still buried in snow that's a week old, the use of heavy throwing or bludgeoning implements is strongly encouraged. I recommend beginning with smaller rocks, hurled at the side of the car at close range. If this doesn't drive the point home after several days, more drastic measures may be needed, including the use of a baseball bat to remove the sideview mirrors entirely and perform some major body work.

Eventually, you may find it cathartic to resort to lobbing bricks or even cinder blocks at the hood or through the side windows. Care should be taken not to damage the windshield, however, and there's a good reason.

You'll note that all the recommended methods of vigilante parking enforcement thus far do nothing to inhibit the violating auto's owner from clearing the snow off their car, firing it up and moving it to a more appropriate parking spot. Indeed, that's what we're trying to encourage here. A broken windshield, for instance, slashed tires or a sugared gas tank would only delay the process of clearing the parking spot for use.

But upon reaching the two-week mark following a snowstorm, if the car still has not been moved, it's fair to assume it's really and truly abandoned -- a public nuissance, a pile of refuse taking up space in the public right of way -- and it's every decency-conscious citizen's duty to blow it up.

As I mentioned earlier, a hurled molotov cocktail presents a simple-yet-dramatic way to torch an errant automobile without much risk of personal injury or exposure to police attention. Given the cover of darkness and a little time to work, it's also possible to pry the cover off the gas tank and use the reservoir itself as a source of fuel, given the ability to rig up some sort of improvised fuse like an oily rag.

Torching a car that's preventing city employees from clearing the road presents a trifecta of advantages. Once the flaming hulk of metal has smoldered and gone out, a city crew will inevitably arrive to tow it out of the street. Likewise, a burning car sets a noticeable, iconic example to other potential scofflaws on your street, and they'll think twice before violating the city's snow parking laws themselves.

Finally, the heat thrown off in the hour or two the car burns will quickly melt away the accumulated snow and ice that would otherwise render the parking space unusable. It's basically win-win-win... and a lose for the deadbeat that didn't think enough of their neighbors to just move their damn car.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Lay of the Land

Why? 'Cuz I basically figured, "What good is in-depth coverage without a really lame graphic to go with it?"

And please, don't ask me how long it took me. My photo-shopping skills are not what they ought to be.

I have every intention of updating this feature at least on a weekly basis, or as the story warrants. District two has all the elements needed to make it the most interesting city council race in the upcoming spring election, and I'm thrilled to get to cover it as a reporter and vote in it as a constituent.

And the Deucers will certainly get to do their share of voting. Only two of the five candidates for the second city council district will get to appear on the April 7 spring election ballot, meaning the February 17 primary election will be when the real "rumble" happens.

With the primary just more than a month away, that means there's precious little time to get informed on each of the candidates and their stands on the issues. Fortunately, most of them have already posted websites, and I was able to get in touch with all of them in the span of one day, resulting in an A+ in accessability for each one.

The deadline to declare candidacy is barely two days past, but the race is already steeped in some degree of controversy. Word around city hall had been for several weeks that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was actively seeking someone to run against four-term incumbent Brenda Konkel, and he confirmed it on the record in a newspaper story this week.

There's no love lost between Cieslewicz and Konkel as a result. Anyone who's ever been to a city council meeting has likely seen them butt heads at least once. Konkel has certainly made herself a thorn in the administration's side, and while the Mayor denies he was successful in recruiting anyone to carry out his political hit, he's made it clear he's not displeased to see competition coming out of the woodwork.

Part of the reason Konkel has aroused the ire of the Mayor (and a number of her fellow council members to boot) is the same reason a number of her constituents, including myself, admire her. While I find myself disagreeing with her on some issues, the passion and fire with which she defends the issues she does is unmatched on the council.

Likewise, Konkel wears her dedication to the job of alder and the ideals of democracy on her sleeve. Like a number of alders I could note, she works a job for a living but lives her elected office, spending free time pouring over meeting notes and minute details. Somehow she finds time to constantly update the blog she keeps on city affairs, which has become a resource, not just for her constituents, but for Madison's citizens in general.

As a reporter, her blog sits near the top of my daily reading list (though I do harbor a *little* resentment stemming from the comment about "biased media" in the header).

Most admirably, she welcomes the four candidates that have materialized to try and swipe the seat from under her. "I think it's fantastic for democracy," she told me yesterday, "to see so much interest in a district... and so much youth. I just wish there was this good a turnout in every other district."

In meetings, unfortunately, Konkel's passion is easily construed as combativeness. Her reputation as being obstinate is well-deserved, as much a black mark as a badge of honor. Her attention to detail can be alternately useful and infuriating for her fellow alders. Some constituents, particularly business- and home-owners, accuse her of paying more attention to renters and the homeless than their own middle-class plights.

It's those traits her opponents Adam Walsh, Bridget Maniaci and Sherman Hackbarth are taking aim at now, each in their own way.

"I'm not running the anti-Konkel campaign," Walsh told me. "I respect many of the things she's done. But I think we could do a better job of making sure everybody feels their needs and concerns are addressed -- not just a select minority."

Walsh was the first to declare his candidacy in the second district, and is not, in fact, the missing son of "America's Most Wanted" host John Walsh. I asked. He actually joked with me that the shared name was going to "make it hell for anybody Googling my web page."

Adam Walsh is relatively fresh out of UW law school, recently married and is a new homeowner on the isthmus. While he works as a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, he paints himself as a concerned neighbor settling into life as a grown-up, as it were. Walsh and his wife plan to have children in the near future, which he says has instilled in him a desire to see more stop signs, brighter night streets and safer parks in the neighborhood.

Raised in the suburbs of Milwaukee, Walsh says he's enthralled with the idea of sending his kids to a "neighborhood school" like Lapham Elementary. But the school isn't the only unique feature of District Two he has an interest in preserving.

"We need to pay more attention to those businesses (in the East Johnson Street corridor)," Walsh said. "I want to foster them so they, hopefully, don't leave. There aren't any chain businesses in the entire district, and if one of them leaves, that opens it up for a chain to come in."

Walsh isn't alone in that fear either. Supreme Pizza, Madison Food Mart, Pinkus McBride, Burnie's Rock Shop, Cork and Bottle Liquor Store -- 25-year-old candidate Bridget Maniaci identified them all as unique businesses struggling to get by in a city that normally lauds local commerce. In fact, she says she'll be offering free advertising space to any takers on her campaign literature.

It's just one example of the kinds of outside-the-box ideas she says she would like to bring to city hall. While she may be the youngest candidate in the race, as a former intern to Mayor Cieslewicz, she has plenty of familiarity with city hall, and her experiences working on Wisconsin's Capitol Hill and on the Fair Wisconsin campaign lend her a legitimate grounding in politics.

In light of the mayor's grudge against Konkel, assuming Maniaci was Cieslewicz's's pick to run for the seat is an easy leap to make, but she assured me that was not the case. "I had to wait two weeks to get a meeting with Dave to tell him I was going to throw my hat in the ring," she told me. "He was actually pretty surprised."

Likewise, Maniaci insists that just because she's a former mayoral staff member doesn't mean she'll end up as a rubber stamp for the mayor, if elected. As a staffer in the early phases of planning the revamped Halloween on State Street (editor's note: don't say Freakfest, ever!) celebration, Maniaci says putting her foot down became a regular priority.

A fourth-generation Madison native, Maniaci and her family have watched the isthmus evolve for decades. But recently, she's become more concerned by the mass exodus of the student population from her west end of the district, trickling into the growing highrises near University Avenue. While she says the district two area is one she thinks "families would like to live in," the housing stock is old, and some homes are run down from years of neglect by landlords and tenants alike.

The push-pull of development and preservation is clearly a delicate one, and she says a plan is needed. "I'm very keen on trying to rehab the houses we do have," Maniaci said, "but if they really are as bad as some of the owners are saying they are from previous landlords, I don’t have a problem with them coming down. I would, however, really like to see something of a similar size and scale go up."

The need to differentiate between the areas where massive development is appropriate and forbidden weighs heavily on the second district, and candidate Sherman Hackbarth, a real estate lawyer, says there's room for both. The 31-year-old graduate of both the UW-Whitewater business program and the UW-Madison law school has been long active in campaigning for updates to Madison's decades-old zoning code as a member of the Capitol Neighborhoods Association.

Hackbarth says he fretted over whether or not to run for weeks leading up to the deadline, and chose to file as District Two's fifth candidate the day of. He stakes his campaign on a measured mantra: "planning we can look back on and be proud of, public safety and effective services with an efficient price."

While part of his solution to the verging-on-decrepit homes in district two is to attract more homeowners to the area, Hackbarth also insists the relationship between renters and landlords has become too combative to provide productive solutions to many problems. He says the city should work to encourage more cooperation.

"Landlords should feel great pride in getting a rent check front their tenants," Hackbarth told me. "They should take utmost care complying with all fair housing issues, and they should be held to a high standard. But tenants should also be pleased to give their landlords a rent check, to be provided with a place they can call home."

While injustices move both ways, it's the plight of landlords Hackbarth says goes unnoticed in district two, where the current alder admittedly makes her living fighting against landlords. If elected, Hackbarth says he'll make policy based primarily on the needs and wants of all his constituents.

He paints himself as a man without a party affiliation, and he's certainly not one to mince words regarding his perceptions of the current seat-holder's performance. "I think Brenda Konkel needs to go," he said. "I want to thank her for her service. She's dedicated, but we need to reviltalize this district, to stop the political fighting and take it in a new direction. I see myself as a voice for the district, not a one-sided political agenda."

Thankfully, the race for the second district city council seat is not without a little comic relief. I was unable to reach Dennis deNure as I researched this story, but rest assured I will do an entire feature on him when the time is appropriate. He's a well-known frequent flyer in local elections, with unsuccessful bids for mayor and the state senate under his belt. A brief perusal of his website provides a fair enough assessment of the man to convince some to vote for him.

With the mix of candidates pounding the pavement, it's going to be an interesting race -- far more interesting than any city council race has any right to be. All four candidates I spoke with seemed amenable to the idea of a debate, which I would eagerly attend, and I hope I'm not the only one.

The Deucers should consider themselves lucky to have the palette of candidates they do to chose from this year. I certainly won't be making up my mind until election day.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Coverage Plan

Now that the city of Madison has survived a historical election and two months worth of aftermath, I have to breathe a sigh of a relief. We're verging on my favorite time of year...

Election time!

Now, I don't expect everyone to share the diabolical pleasure I derive from local elections. There are plenty of folks who would be hard-pressed to note the last time Wisconsin Supreme Court Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson ran for office, who their school board or city council representatives are, or what the county executive even does.

But the upcoming February primary and the April general election to follow are shaping up to be pretty inetresting in the Madison area, following yesterday's deadline to declare candidacy, and I feel it's my job to help everyone to see the drama that's unfolding right out their front door.

First of all, there are several city council races that are simply going to be steeped in titillation. Foremost among them is the knock-down, drag-out death match that's unfolding to claim the second district seat on the council, which is currently held by Alder Brenda Konkel.

Konkel has no plans to go anywhere, but two lawyers, a former mayor's aide and a crazy guy have their sights set on sneaking the north half of the isthmus out from under her. The intrigue tripled when word got out that Mayor Dave Cieslewicz was actively seeking out people to run against Konkel, with whom his working relationship could best be described as "shaky." It's by far the most hotly contested race in the city, and it's all unfolding right out MY own front door.

As a second district resident, I'll be taking special interest in this race. I already spent between 20 minutes and an hour each on the phone with Konkel, Adam Walsh, Bridget Maniaci and Sherman Hackbarth this afternoon, and I'll attempt to frame up their platforms in tomorrow's blog post. I'll also be writing weekly updates on the district two race, and eventually have to decide which of these people I'm going to vote for.

I'm not sure yet if I will be publicly announcing my pick in district two, but there is one race I'm ready to make a full-fledged endorsement in. I whole-heartedly urge all the east-side residents within district 15 to vote Alder Larry Palm into a third term with the city, as I have no doubt they will.

Palm is a dedicated civil servant, an activist within his community and a man that sticks to his ideals. By contrast, his challenger Will Sandstrom, while endlessly amusing, is far too intolerant, unstable and incapable-of-maintaining-his-focus-on-a-single-line-of-discussion to properly serve his community as alder.

That's not to say it wouldn't be hilarious to have Sandstrom on the council. His farcical 2007 campaign for mayor yielded more than its share of classic moments, but I honestly don't know if I could deal with moments like this (audio clip pulled from a public discussion of changes to the city's zoning code on November 6, 2008) on a bi-weekly basis.

So I suppose, in light of that rant, it's no surprise Sandstrom has chosen to run against Alder Palm in what we can only assume is a well-meaning attempt to make Madison a more straight-friendly community. God only knows there have been plenty times in my five years as a resident I've felt persecuted as a straight white male.

And seriously, there are people who think local politics are boring?

Frankly, I'm a little disappointed by the fact that 13 alders are running for their seats unopposed, and not because I have any particular issue with the way city government is being run, but because democracy is supposed to remain in a constant state of flux. It's clear what we have in Madison isn't the "series of smaller revolutions to prevent the big one" that would be ideal, but there are plenty more local races to dig into, and I'll bring a shovel. Stay tuned.