Archive for July, 2009

It’s show time on the City Square…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 25, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Showtime on the square

Tuesday, July 28 at 6 p.m., there will be yet another public discussion of the latest incarnation of a plan to improve the 400 block in downtown Wausau. I’d like to be able to tell you that this is the beginning of the end of a decade-plus long public debate; that we will finally do the cutting and polishing necessary to transform this small, but significant piece of real estate into the gem that it should really be.
 
I’d like to tell you that since the question is simply for the city council to get out of the way and let people who care about and understand this public asset take care of improving and funding it, it’s now going to finally get done.
 
But it may not.  It’s going to take some serious positive pressure to overcome the negative inertia that has prevailed for years.
The plan is functional, somewhat muted and not particularly expensive as these things go. Still, it at least makes a statement about something besides our inability to reach a consensus, our fear of change or our unwillingness to invest in an important asset that can be all that it is today and much more.
 
It’s going to end up being funded largely with private contributions. That’s not because it’s fair, logical or follows any particular precedent. It’s because enough people are tired of fighting about that issue and they just want to take the whole “I’m an angry taxpayer” discussion off the table in order to get on with things that have now been stalled for half a generation and counting.
 
When the buildings on the 400 block were razed, it was to take some very distressed real estate out of the picture in downtown Wausau and thereby increase the value of the remaining properties. It worked and it has been a significant component in what has been nothing short of a renaissance of our downtown over the past 10 years. The block was even open to the prospect of economic development for a time, but it rapidly became something that was regarded as sacrosanct and its future as a public asset is secure. Now, tens of thousands of people visit the block in season for concerts, Chalkfest, the still-growing Thursday markets and more.
 
I’ve had the opportunity to be involved from the controversial acquisition of the buildings by the city until today. My continuing interest has extended into the various activities there. City Pages’ “Concerts on the Square” were the concerts in Stewart Park until they were moved to provide beneficial synergy to downtown. The summer concerts are an institution. Our Main Street and Wausau Area Events organizations have had a wonderful and positive impact on the use of the block with their creativity and hard work.
 
For those who only go to the 400 block for a concert on the square, Chalkfest, the balloon glow, Summer Kickoff, to grab something the weekly summer market or another programmed event, it can be easy to think that nothing more is needed. Many people do. Crowds and activities create their own ambiance. But the reality is that the block is neither particularly inviting nor interesting when there isn’t such an activity going on, which is most of the time. It is not a place that you would take your out-of-town friends to see or spend time. It’s not a cool place to meet, hang out or have a conversation. It’s not a place to propose marriage or somewhere interesting take the kids. I’ve visited public squares on four continents since we began work on the 400 block and what we have is a lot of unrealized potential. It looks and feels like a flat, nearly featureless vacant lot with no real character or pleasant ambiance of its own because that is exactly what it is.  It’s an empty fishbowl.
 
The rejection of expert opinions by people who have no background in public spaces, are not involved in event planning, may spend little time on the block — and sometimes don’t even live in the city — is kind of amazing. They speak out against improvements based ostensibly on their enjoyment of events which the stagers point out will be enhanced by the project. Informal perimeter bench sitting becomes the Berlin Wall or a skateboard magnet (what about the planters down there now?) “Less is more,” they say, fighting what would be more efficient and attractive use of space. They pass around their fears, negativity and myths while rarely or never citing an example or an expert to support them. (In their defense, it’s probably very difficult to find them.)
 
Everybody’s entitled to his or her opinion, but the idea that naysayers should be able to carry the day without anything but their willingness to express a negative opinion based on little or nothing is kind of baffling. Just “because I said so” should prevent anyone else from improving things. We faced the same kind of opposition to opening up Third and Washington Streets on the north side of the mall. Nobody’s going to get thrown out of office by a challenger insisting that was a dumb idea today because it’s so obvious that it worked. We’ve greatly improved access and removed the issue of loitering. There are many more pedestrians on the former “pedestrian mall,” too. Thank goodness that we didn’t go with those who tried to prevent it. But it sure made for great fodder while people were still dealing with unknowns.
 
While the City Square awaits its long-overdue improvements, it will continue to provide a wonderful opportunity for shortsighted, glib, simplistic pronouncements by people who seem to think that doing nothing is some kind of a virtue. There was plenty of opposition to acquiring the 400 block and clearing it to begin with. Thank goodness we didn’t follow those who opposed it then. We shouldn’t give those who proudly proclaim having no vision of its greater potential today the ability to dictate and limit its future. Those who want to delay for better times are the same people who didn’t want to do anything when things were booming. They won’t be supporting it when unemployment falls and good times roll again either.
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a simple view, but it is not reaching for excellence in any way, shape or form. It appeals to those who think about cost to the exclusion of value. Moreover, the people who actually stage the events will tell you that while they will continue to make it work, there really are some things about the square that aren’t nearly what they should be to achieve the highest value for the considerable effort and expense that they invest.

It’s also important to look at the environment that the 400 block exists in: historic, new and renovated buildings with a high level of finish.  If the owners of the buildings downtown had followed the example being set in the square, it might be surrounded by something on the order of pole sheds.  You can get a lot of square footage cheap that way, you know?  Less is more, right? The city should take care of its space in a manner that is harmonious with its neighborhood and right now, it’s clearly not.

With private contributions in play, the cost argument is pretty much down the tubes, but people keep making it anyway because it’s a mantra – whether it applies or not. Many public projects are coming in 10-20 percent under budget these days as contractors compete for work in a soft economy. We ought to let those civic-minded people among us who want to provide this gift to the city to get rolling just as soon as we possibly can so they can get the very most for the money they will be raising.

If Chicago can aspire to host the 2016 Olympics, Wausau can certainly do this modest project in the heart of the city where the value of the space has already been more than amply demonstrated. You don’t have to be sick to get better. It’s time.

 

JR

Negativity as a political strategy…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on July 17, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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“Everyone’s tax money is going to waste because we have incompetent people running the government.”
 
 

 

– Pat Snyder, 550 Radio

 * * * 

I was talking to someone about an issue recently and offered the observation that while I didn’t think we were outnumbered, I was certain that we were being outshouted. It’s a pretty simple matter to deal with these things in legislative bodies because if that’s truly the case and you bring something to a vote, you can simply call for a roll call. Ten people screaming “NO!” after 20 people voting “yes” in a normal speaking voice might screw up the decibel meter, but this isn’t a game show and that’s not how outcomes are determined. Likewise, an aggressive campaign by a trailing candidate or a referendum initiative can look like it’s carrying a lot more weight with the populace than it really is. The only thing that really counts in the end is what can actually be counted and that’s votes.

Political philosophies are close enough to religious beliefs for people to regularly mix them together and it’s not just in the Middle East. Given the opportunity, I’m convinced that some people in the religious right would be only too happy to install a theocracy right here in the land of e. pluribus unum to reflect their religious views in all aspects of public policy.

Atheists, on the other hand, are a distinct minority in this country and in most other places. But they have one thing going for them as a movement and that is this: they’re totally together on the major tenet of their philosophy. They can all say in complete unison that “There is no god” and that’s that. While they may not being singing out of a hymnal, they’re all on the same page. When it comes to separation of church and state, there are plenty of times when a lot of us are happy to sing right along with them in terms of outcomes, as well we should.

Contrast that with those who are not atheists. They’ve got a big problem because they’re dealing with a nearly unending spectrum of views within their basic belief system. There are Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Jews and more. Within each major religion, there are denominations and sects. There are orthodox and reformed. There are organizational structures in which people relentlessly protect their self-interests, resisting mergers, cooperation and affiliations that might post the risk of diminishing their personal positions within the different power structures. Then there are agnostics, Unitarians and Deists. Many people may believe that man was created in god’s image, but would still have to concede that it’s a pretty damned poor image a lot of the time.

The divides between these groups can be anything from relatively minor to extremely significant. The devil is literally in the details. Here’s the important part: once people start to focus on their differences instead of the broad, general principles upon which they could probably agree, they become mired in philosophical and doctrinal debates. Like Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds, they’ve been doing it for thousands of years – and the enemy of your enemy isn’t necessarily your friend, either.

Politics has always involved big doses of negativity, but it seems to me that using negativity as an overarching political strategy has become far more commonplace these days. Any new initiative or approach to a problem is greeted with a series of searing talking points from the opposite side of the aisle designed to sow doubt and derail any chance of a significant accomplishment by the wrong people.

It’s rarely about trying to make what might be a halfway decent idea even better because to do that, you would have to be willing to acknowledge that the original source had some credibility, after all. If you can’t be smart or ethical, at least you can do your best to make your competition look stupid, incompetent and corrupt.  (You can tune in to 550 Radio any morning to hear simplistic, blanket pronouncements dealing with any of the more wrenching issues of the day like the one I randomly chose today during the 10 minutes I could stand to listen.)

Is it any wonder that after repeating this cycle of action-reaction-inaction thousands of times and then trotting out the occasional exception to prove the rule, a lot of people see elected officials from city hall to Capitol Hill as stupid, incompetent and corrupt? Is it any surprise that some of the best potential leaders and problem-solvers would choose to steer clear of placing themselves in such an environment as the price of trying to make a positive impact?

Allowing such an environment to become and remain the dominating feature of our public policy-making landscape threatens to leave us with another thing in common between politics and religion: going to hell.

JR

Fool-proof baby back ribs…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on July 13, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

Okay, so nothing’s foolproof because fools are so ingenious, but this is close.  But everybody’s talking ribs after the big ribfest this weekend so you’re going to have to learn to make them well if you don’t want to wait until next year to get in line again. (This is an encore from the old blog because that is going to be lost forever soon.)

For whatever reason, baby back ribs seem to go on sale from time to time around here and the last batch a few weeks ago was $2.99 per lb. For that, I’m eating them — and if you don’t have a reliable recipe, here’s one that’s about as difficult as making a frozen pizza.

First, flip the racks over and slide a knife under the membrane on the back side of the rack. You can start just about anywhere, just advancing the knife point up along a rib.  (I use a thin-bladed boning knife and it doesn’t need to be particuly sharp for this task. Once you get a little separaration, you should be able to just grab the material to peel it away and discard.) Cut each rack approximately in half, for easy handling. Rub them down with some black pepper and garlic salt — or anything else you might like in the way of dry seasoning. After I have the seasoning on, I like to paint on a little terriyaki or Worcestershire sauce. You can let this stand anywhere from 15 minutes to a few hours — it’s no big deal either way.

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Okay, now fire up your grill (or alternatively, you can use your broiler.) What we’re doing is imparting a little outdoor, flame-kist flavor — but we’re not actually going to prepare the ribs entirely on the grill. Just put them on for enough time on each side enough to give them a little grill finish and firmness; then take them off. This usually takes about 15-20 minutes total on a medium setting. (Watch them close so they don’t char on you.)

Pre-heat your oven to 250 degrees while this is going on. Get a covered roaster and cover the bottom with about a sixteenth of an inch of hot water and a couple of drops of liquid smoke. (I use an oblong Corningware covered casserole and I can fit four half racks of ribs in it.)

Alright, take the ribs off the grill. At this point, you want to paint on a nice layer of barbecue sauce — (and of course, I use Sweet Baby Ray’s.) Put the ribs into the covered roaster with the underside down. (The reason is to raise most of the meat off the liquid in the bottom, as well as the liquid that will accumulate from the cooking ribs.) Put the cover on the roaster and put the ribs in the oven. That’s it. You’re done. Your home will now begin to permeate with the smell of slowly barbecuing ribs and you can decide if you want to bother with a side dish or not.

In about three hours, you will have something that looks like the picture above. The meat will have receded off the ends of the bones and you will have tender, tasty ribs that still hold together fairly well. In four hours, you will have difficulty lifting them out with your tongs in one piece because they will be breaking apart (which is fine, too.) The low temperature keeps the barbecue sauce from burning and it allows the flavor to nicely penetrate the meat. I like to get them out of the roaster and onto a serving plate immediately after removing them from the oven because it gets them out of the renderings in the bottom of the roaster.

Have some sauce on the side to add as you eat them or to add to sandwiches.

Bon appetit!

Duffy’s gamble: something for later…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on July 9, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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Yesterday, Ashland County District Attorney and former “Real World” reality TV cast member Sean Duffy, 37, announced his candidacy for Congress in Wisconsin’s 7th U.S. Congressional District; the seat that has been held by House Appropriations Committee Chair Congressman Dave Obey since 1969. A world champion lumberjack, who married a fellow cast member in the 1997 MTV series, the immediate question is whether Duffy’s candidacy has legs. The answer is almost certainly no – but that’s only for the 2010 election and it doesn’t make it a bad political move for Duffy over the longer haul.

Duffy’s candidacy will set up a GOP primary in the 7th in September 2010, assuming Dan Mielke stays in the race. Mielke is a farmer from Rudolph who lost to Obey in 2008 and has been running a perpetual campaign against Obey since the run-up to that election. Nobody’s listening beyond the 30-some percent that will vote against Obey in every election and there is no reason to believe that Mielke, 55, will do any better the next time around – and therein lies the dynamic of this election. With that many years in office and one of the most powerful committee chairmanships in the Congress, Dave Obey runs against Dave Obey, not his GOP opponent.

Is it that long-time incumbents simply can’t be beat? No. Wisconsin Congressman Bob Kastenmeier lost his seat after 15 terms to Republican Scott Klug in the 1990 election in the fairly Democratic district that includes Madison and is now represented by liberal Democrat Tammy Baldwin. It was the mid-term election two years into George H. Bush’s only term as President; not a bad environment in which Dems to run and a great district for a Democrat to run in. The most stunning race that fall was probably in neighboring Minnesota, where Democrat Paul Wellstone upset Republican 22-year incumbent Senator Rudy Boschwitz. Another long-time Wisconsin Democratic incumbent, Gaylord Nelson, was knocked out of the U.S. Senate in 1980 by Bob Kasten.

While it might seem like ancient history to some, Dave Obey remembers this stuff vividly and anyone who knows him will tell you that he does not take re-election for granted. Ever. I would be surprised to see any significant resources coming into the 7th Congressional District to challenge Congressman Obey.

The GOP spent big bucks trying to hold the 8th District seat formerly held by Mark Green when it was open in 2006 and failed. That was a much easier race. As Assembly Speaker, Congressional candidate John Gard had plenty of political experience and a high profile position from which to raise money and run.

Dr. Steve Kagan had none of that going for him, but he did have the resources to run a congressional campaign and the geographical advantage of running from the Fox Valley, where more of the district’s population is centered. By contrast, Gard’s Assembly district reached down into northern Brown County, but not as far as the City of Green Bay. George Bush easily won the 8th Congressional District in 2004 with 55 percent of the vote, but it swung to Obama with 53.6 percent of the vote in 2008.

The 7th District would be a far more difficult challenge. As Ashland County District Attorney, Sean Duffy’s constituency is about the size of the villages of Weston and Rothschild combined – so not much. It is also away from the major media markets. The population of the district is around 670,000. John Kerry won with 51 percent of the vote in 2004 in the 7th and Obama polled nearly 56 percent in 2008. Democrats represent large sections of the district in the state legislature and so there is little high profile GOP help evident at this point.

Obey knows his district, so he doesn’t get hung up on issues like gun control that can dog other liberal Democrats with large rural constituencies. Over the years, he’s had the opportunity to assist many communities and leaders throughout the district from his congressional perch. While opponents like to try to hang the “out of touch” label on incumbents, it doesn’t really wash. Obey has plenty of full-time congressional staffers working in the district as well as solid staff in his Washington office and a campaign staff. They’re all business.

As a party still reeling from significant losses in 2006 and 2008, the GOP will need to spend its time and resources defending seats where they have vulnerable incumbents and going for gains in districts that are far more competitive for them than this one. On the other hand, Duffy could position himself as legitimate contender going forward if the seat becomes open. He’ll need to run a good race and come up with at least 40 percent of the ballots to look legitimate – and then hope that the time will come when Dave Obey isn’t opposite him on the ballot. Because that’s the Real World.

JR

Speculate-A-Palooza! The Palin Move…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 3, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

At least half of punditry is being first to market, so here’s my bid to make sense of the seemingly non-sensical choice by Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to resign this month before finishing her term. 

Is she going to be gone?  Not hardly, mes amis.

I’m not sure that it’s a great strategy, but I believe that there is a possibility that Palin may be angling for the U.S. Senate seat held by GOP Senator Lisa Murkowski.  To understand this GOP in-fighting, you have to look back over the past few years in Alaska politics.

Republican Gov. Frank Murkowski had likely become Alaska’s most despised incumbent governor ever by 2006. It wasn’t always that way. Aside from Ted Stevens, Frank was nearly the gold standard in Alaska politics for a long time. He had been U.S. Senator from 1981 until being elected governor in 2002. Following his inauguration, Murkowski appointed his daughter, Lisa, to fill the remainder of his Senate term.

The biography for Lisa Murkowski on the U.S. Senate site doesn’t mention her father at all. Dick Cheney appears in the swearing in photo, but not Frank Murkowski – a guy that had a lot to do with getting her where she is from any of various angles that you might care to explore. But that little overreach of nepotism by dad proved to be a little more than Alaskans could bear. The enraged electorate passed a ballot measure in 2004 to strip the state’s governor of the authority to make such appointments going forward. Meanwhile, Lisa Murkowski was elected to a full six-year Senate term by only a three percent margin over a Democratic opponent in that very red state.  That term is up for re-election in 2010.

Frank Murkowski picked up only 19 percent of the August 2006 GOP primary for governor (not too good — especially  for an incumbent.)  Sarah Palin got 51 percent in the three-way primary. With the momentum a giant killer – and never mind that in a two-way race, Peewee Herman could have taken Frank out from the back row of a theater by then — Palin went on to win in the November general election with a total of 114,697 votes. (For a comparison, Wisconsin Governor Jim Doyle polled nearly 10 times that number of votes to capture re-election in November 2006 here in Wisconsin, which is not really a big state.)

So anyway, there probably isn’t much love lost between the Palin and the Murkowski families and their respective political camps.  Sarah needs to get to Washington if she has higher ambitions and the path there may well be by running in another GOP primary against a Murkowski because, after all, it worked for her the last time.  The national GOP may even be concerned that Lisa Murkowski isn’t their best chance to hold the seat, considering her thin margin the last time.  They’re already smarting from losing the Stevens seat due to an ill-timed scandal that allowed the Dems to capture the seat last November.

Of course, there is also the possibility that there is much more to this story than we already know concerning Sarah Palin’s resignation, so we will all have to stay tuned.  I could be completely wrong, but what if I’m not and you heard it here first?  🙂

JR

Fourth of July celebration morphs into Tea Party…

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 1, 2009 by Jim Rosenberg

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A few years back, a guy by the name of Joe McGrath wanted a flagpole put on the 400 block and he also wanted to have some kind of patriotic Fourth of July celebration. One thing led to another and in 2007, such an event was held. It somehow got worked in with a kiddy parade from the Wausau Center to the 400 block, which is actually a separate event. 
 
 
So it all seemed very nice and I checked it out, although I admit to always being a little skittish about it. For one thing, the emcee has been Pat Snyder, who does a right-wing talk show on 550 Radio. There is a reason that he is the guy and it has to do with the other players in the cast; the people who organize this thing. It all seemed just a little too partisan to me, although I couldn’t really say that it was necessarily so. Money raised from the concessions was slated to go to the benefit of military members serving overseas and who could argue with that?
 
 
It is at this point that I have to tell you that I think I’m as patriotic as anyone is. I never joined the American Legion, although I would be eligible, as a Vietnam era veteran. Nobody owes me anything for my six years in the military. I got a bachelor’s degree, work experience in my field — and frankly, I didn’t have tough duty. I have a lot of respect for all of those from whom much was asked, but I have to be honest and tell you that not all that much was asked of me and that’s just the way it is. Likewise, I’m happy to serve as a local elected official and there is more to that than simply saying the Pledge of Allegiance before meetings. So I believe in our system, I’ve been willing to serve and I’ve had the honor of being able to do that over the years.
  
Fast forward to 2009 and the handbill for the third annual Independence Day Celebration on the City Square says it is presented by “The American Legion and the Wausau Tea Party Patriots.” The program is pretty much the same as it has been the last two years, right down to Pat Snyder. But there is really no particular reason to consider it as an event without a political agenda anymore because it clearly is exactly that. Don’t take my word for it. Look at the website:
 
www.wausauteaparty.com
 
 
Scroll down. Click on some of the logos and sites like kickthemallout.com and the terminally partisan Wisconsin Family Action, Americans for Prosperity and more. Check out the signs comparing President Obama to Stalin and other ridiculous claims from the far right. These are the people you’ll be celebrating Independence Day with on the 400 block, if you go. If that’s your cup of tea, then have at it.

But I have to wonder if the American Legion is really tuned in to what they’re co-sponsoring, which is a big dose of alienation toward what could arguably be called the majority of Americans and Wisconsinites, based on the way they’ve been voting in the past few elections. More importantly, Independence Day doesn’t belong to political parties and ideologues of either the right or the left.

People have a right to freedom of speech. At the same time, I’m not interested in showing up at an event where my presence can be misconstrued as a statement that I’m truly not making. I’m not interested in being used to up the body count for people like Americans for Prosperity to crow about, as if duping unsuspecting people into joining their Tea Party under the premise of simply trying to celebrate this Nation’s birthday is somehow legitimate. It didn’t necessarily seem like that kind of a statement the last couple of years, but this year, it is.

The Tea Party folks will be on the block from Noon until 4 p.m. I understand the City Concert Band will be playing at 7 p.m. and that should be a good show. Maybe I’ll see you there.

JR