Dan O’Donnell on the effort to keep you from remembering the name Jeff Wood and realizing what it means as Democrats scream about lame-duck sessions.
December 5, 2018
Special Guest Perspective by Dan O’Donnell
Jeff Wood was a forgotten man. Once a popular and promising Wisconsin assemblyman, he sat in a jail cell—abandoned by nearly all of his political allies and contemplating how his life had gone so wrong.
Over the previous three years, he had been arrested for operating while intoxicated four times and his colleagues had moved to expel him from the Assembly if he didn’t resign. He instead promised to seek treatment rather than another term in office, and he spent Election Night alone behind bars and not in front of cheering supporters.
He was a forgotten man…until he wasn’t. A month after the election, his colleagues realized that they needed him (or, more accurately, his vote) in a lame-duck session designed to stymie the incoming gubernatorial administration by saddling it with hastily-negotiated public union contracts.
So desperate were the outgoing governor and state legislative majority to pass what amounted to a sweetheart deal for some of their biggest political backers that they did what was until then unthinkable—they sprang Jeff Wood from jail so he could vote.
Even though he was serving a 60-day sentence and had drugs in his vehicle during two of his four drunk-driving arrests, a sympathetic judge agreed to let him out on work release for just long enough to be a forgotten man no more.
Eight years later, though, he is forgotten again; an uncomfortable reminder that the Republican-led Legislature’s supposedly unprecedented lame-duck session “power grab” isn’t unprecedented at all.
In 2010, after Scott Walker led a Republican wave that recaptured the governor’s mansion as well as both houses of the State Legislature, outgoing Democrat Jim Doyle pushed through union contracts that he determined would be a better deal for upwards of 39,000 state workers than anything his successor would offer.
Through truly staggering fiscal mismanagement, Doyle had left Walker with a $3.3 billion budget shortfall that Democrats believed the new governor would try to close by forcing unionized employees to pay more for their health care contributions.
Rather than allow that to happen once they lost both the executive and legislative branches, Assembly and Senate Democrats called a lame-duck session to approve Doyle’s new union contracts.
They needed every vote they could get, but had a big problem: Jeff Wood, a Republican-turned-Independent who voted with Assembly Democrats, was stuck in jail.
This turned out to be less of a problem than the State Senate, as Wood’s vote turned out to be meaningless when Democratic Senators Russ Decker and Jeff Plale unexpectedly sided with Republicans and rejected the contracts.
Unneeded and forgotten again, Jeff Wood returned to jail and served out the remainder of his sentence, only to be convicted of fifth-offense OWI less than a year later.
Democrats today would rather he stay forgotten, because his jailbreak tends to disprove the notion that Republicans today are doing anything that outgoing Democrats wouldn’t have tried in 2010.
Wisconsin’s media, too, is trying its level best to keep Jeff Wood a forgotten man–refusing even to write his name in countless editorials blasting the GOP’s alleged power grab.
“The bottom line is beyond debate: Walker lost, yet the governor and his cronies are still grabbing at power,” The Capital Times Editorial Board wrote Tuesday. “Instead of recognizing the will of the people, Walker, [Assembly Speaker Robin] Vos and [Senate Majority Leader Scott] Fitzgerald are doing everything in their waning power to thwart it. That’s antithetical to Wisconsin values, and to Wisconsin democracy.”
Eight years ago, however, the same Editorial Board all but begged outgoing Democrats to hold a lame-duck session to “end [Democratic control of state government] on a high note that could set the tone for the coming decade.”
The board openly urged a lame-duck governor, lame-duck Assembly, and lame-duck Senate to completely overhaul campaign finance disclosure in the state and thus end “the decay of our political process.”
“We have a chance to create an open election process in Wisconsin, where campaigns are transparent and voters know what out-of-state interests are seeking to control the process,” the board wrote. “But it will happen only if the Legislature acts in December.”
The Legislature tried, though not on that issue and with nary a peep from The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about a “power grab.”
A search of JSOnline.com reveals just one editorial from the 2010 lame-duck session that includes the phrase–when the Editorial Board slammed Walker for wanting to approve state rules.
“This does have all the earmarks of a power grab,” the Editorial Board wrote then. “Walker is not only asking the Legislature to cede him power, he is asking it to expand his powers over other elected constitutional officers and their departments.”
In 2010, Walker suggesting (correctly) that he had executive authority over the rule-making process was somehow a power grab, but springing a repeat drunk-driver to vote on quickie deals to protect union cronies apparently wasn’t.
Today, too, as The Journal Sentinel and its ilk shriek about a new “power grab,” Jeff Wood remains a forgotten man. A Google News search for his name does not turn up a single result in any local news outlets.
Even when Journal Sentinel columnist Dan Bice published a “gotcha” piece on what he claims is Republican hypocrisy on lame-duck sessions, he never mentions the name Jeff Wood.
Why not? Is the Wisconsin Democratic Party’s shamelessness in getting him out of jail to vote in a lame-duck session not relevant as that same Democratic Party decries today’s lame-duck session as unprecedented and improper?
In reality, it’s neither. The saga of Jeff Wood proves it. That’s why his name doesn’t appear in any news searches. That’s why Democrats are pretending he never existed.
That’s why there’s a concerted effort at keeping Jeff Wood a forgotten man.