Democrats in Madison fumbled and bumbled when it came to Julie Lassa's campaign in central Wisconsin.
(Editor's note: Bill Berry lives in Stevens Point and worked for many years as a writer and editor for the Stevens Point Journal. His take on state Senator Julie Lassa's recent special election victory and the issues related to it is unique in that it comes from someone who lives in her part of the state and not from a political insider from Madison or Milwaukee. For that reason and others, it is a brilliant analysis.
A version of this article ran on the opinion page of the Capital Times on August 26.)
The newspapers reported recently that state Sen. Julie Lassa won her defamation suit against some guy named Todd Rongstad.
Rongstad ends up being an ant in this story. The elephants (some of them even resemble their namesakes) are a bunch of goofballs who call themselves Democrats.
This whole matter has been bizarre from start to finish. Speaking of finish, it did that to some political careers and maybe should have to some others. Up here, in Lassa's stomping grounds, we were left shaking our heads that people could be so stupid. There's a whole list of stumbles, bumbles and fumbles in this blood bath. Let us visit just a few:
The story of the Lassa/Chvala "jump rope postcard" has been often told. Rongstad sent it to central Wisconsin residents last fall. Chuck Chvala's face was superimposed over those of members of a popular local group called Jump for Life, which was visiting the Capitol and then Rep. Lassa. She was jumping rope in the photo, and the postcard implied that when Chvala said jump, Lassa hopped to it. It might sound quaint, but people up this way took that as way out of line.
Forget the main figures in this affair and focus on that jump rope team for a moment. These local high school kids have traveled all over promoting good health and raising money for the American Heart Association. They were coached at the time by Martha Schuh, a well-respected, well-connected community member and former teacher in the Stevens Point school system. Between Schuh and Lassa, the meanies behind the postcard picked the wrong women to wrong. Add to that the fact that Schuh's husband, Jim Schuh, is a well-known radio and print news veteran with contacts all over the state and nation. He was inducted into the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association Hall of Fame this year.
Things started getting curiouser and curiouser when it was revealed that Alex Paul, a wet-behind-the-ears Democrat from Wisconsin Rapids, who coveted the 24th Senate District seat, was behind the mailing. Add to that the fact that Paul and Kevin Shibilski, the former state senator and former state tourism director from Stevens Point, were hunting buddies. One can almost see Paul and Shibilski cooking the whole thing up while slurping Point beer in the hunting shack. "Hey, dat'll be a good one, buddy. Hah, hah, hah."
Oh, it also happened that Paul's parents were big contributors to Gov. Jim Doyle's election bid, which probably explained the Doyle blunders that were to follow. Sure enough, Doyle got elected, named Shibilski tourism director, and Paul, he of no political experience but boodles of cash, quickly announced he was going to run for Shibilski's state Senate seat. Trouble is, so did Lassa. She's not rich and had only her good name to run on, jump rope postcards notwithstanding. Fortunately that's still enough sometimes.
Bent on throwing more dirt, Paul went out and hired political consultant Bill Christofferson, who apparently has crossed over to the dark side, to manage his campaign in central Wisconsin. Christopherson ran a smutty campaign that hammered on the negatives.
As it turned out, Lassa trounced Paul in the primary and easily won the general election. Whatever Christofferson was paid, it was a complete waste of money. An outsider doesn't trash a local farm girl up here and get away with it. Doyle looked plenty silly in the matter, too. Still juiced from the contributions from Poor Little Rich Boy Paul's parents, he endorsed Paul in the primary. In so doing, he passed over Lassa, a sitting Democrat. That had folks in this longtime Democratic stronghold up here steaming. A few days after the Doyle endorsement, the executive board of the Portage County Democratic Party unanimously endorsed Lassa. Goodbye, Alex. Goodbye, Jim.
Lassa, with that trouble-causer Ed Garvey as her attorney, pursued the defamation lawsuit against Rongstad, even though some state Democrats asked her to let it be. By this time, Lassa had decided not to listen too closely to some "friends."
When Paul coughed up the fact that he funded Rongstad's meanie trick, it all started to unravel. Shibilski jumped ship as tourism director. Either that or he was pushed off the plank by Doyle. The gov had to play dumb about being dumb. Rongstad got a date in court out of the deal.
Paul, tail planted between his legs, picked up and left for Colorado. Unfortunately, we probably haven't heard the last of Christofferson or Rongstad. Maybe they can start a consulting firm together. Shibilski, it was announced recently, is pursuing an exciting new career as an investment banker. Doyle just went into denial. And Lassa? The quiet country girl from Portage County slammed them all to the mat. That's why we elected her. We just didn't think we'd have to go through the Democratic bouncers to get to the Republicans.
August 28, 2003
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Bill Berry is a FightingBob.com contributing editor who lives in Stevens Point and writes columns for the Capital Times and other publications.