Learning from Bob Menendez and Robin Vos

September 28, 2023 5:15 am

Sen. Bob Menendez (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Spc. Michael Schwenk). Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Screenshot via WisEye)

Say what you will about Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J), the motives for his alleged crimes are crystal clear.

It doesn’t take an advanced degree in public policy to understand the “eye-popping photos of gold bars and money-stuffed envelopes”  — as reporter Dana DiFilippo of the New Jersey Monitor put it — which Menendez and his wife allegedly took as bribes from the Egyptian government. In exchange for these and other goodies, the Menendezes allegedly helped the repressive Egyptian government to escape U.S. sanctions for human rights abuses. Menendez may even have used his powerful position as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to prepare Egypt’s security chief for questions from his colleagues about Egypt’s role in the 2018 murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

Tony Soprano would approve. Leave it to the Garden State to produce such a prize-winning exemplar of corruption. 

My father, who grew up in New Jersey, has often expressed his bemusement at the comparatively penny-ante antics that pass for political corruption in Wisconsin. 

Take Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who has made national news recently for his threats to impeach newly elected Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Janet Protasiewicz if she dares to help the Court’s new liberal majority overturn the Republicans’ gerrymandered maps. In a column in the Bulwark this week, Bill Lueders memorably describes Vos’ style — “peevish, petulant, reflexively retributive” — as “governance by temper tantrum.” The souring of  Wisconsin’s political atmosphere, thanks in large part to the Speaker’s attitude, Lueders writes, is “trickle-down jerkonomics.” 

But where are the gold bars? 

For all Vos’ machinations — carefully laid out by Urban Milwaukee editor Bruce Murphy in another Vos analysis that dissects his absurd claim that Protasiewicz is guilty of “corruption” because she dared to use the word “rigged” to describe the Republicans’ gerrymandered maps — what is Vos getting out of his reign of destruction? 

Menendez got a fancy car and closets stuffed with cash. Vos gets to lord it over a bunch of people he hates — and who hate him back — in the state’s most toxic work environment. 

It’s all divide and no conquer with the Wisconsin Republicans. 

Sure there are the die-hard ideologues who tell themselves they are saving babies by making it more difficult and dangerous for Wisconsin women to get abortions. For about 15 months they managed to drag us back to the 19th century, causing doctors to stop providing services even in situations where their patients were suffering emergency pregnancy complications. But now Planned Parenthood has resumed abortion services, on the strength of a judge’s ruling that the 1849 law doesn’t actually ban abortions after all, and the anti-abortion groups are back to railing at press conferences and stoking the culture wars.

Vos tossed them a little red meat this week, promising to pray for the unborn. But he has shown little appetite for the cause and the anti-abortion hardliners know he’s not one of them.

Election conspiracy theorists — aka the Republicans’ Trump-worshiping base — don’t trust Vos as far as they can throw him.

The election deniers in Vos’ caucus have openly rebelled against him, chanting “Toss Vos” in the halls of the Capitol and trying to eject him as Speaker. Still, he worked to appease them by appointing the preposterously ill-equipped former Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman to waste millions of taxpayer dollars on a fantasy “investigation” into election fraud, only to ultimately fire Gableman and dismiss the whole thing as an “embarrassment.”   

Murphy sees masterful “legal trickery” in Vos’ maneuvering. And it’s true that he’s adept at gaslighting the Democrats. They were gobsmacked when he suddenly brought up a nonpartisan redistricting proposal similar to the “Iowa model” legislation they’d been proposing to no avail for years. Vos introduced the bill and brought it to the floor two days later without a single public hearing. The rushed process and the bottomless distrust Democrats, including Gov. Tony Evers, have for Vos basically rendered the proposal dead on arrival.

But a side-by-side comparison of Vos’ bill and previous versions brought up by Democrats by Hope Karnopp in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel showed that, whether for political show or out of desperation, there had been some actual movement through Republican amendments toward a process for getting fair maps.

Of course, Vos and other Republicans seized on the Democrats’ refusal to debate the bill as evidence of hypocrisy. They don’t want fair maps, the Republicans crowed, they just want the liberal majority on the court to gerrymander Wisconsin the other way. 

Democrats, for their part, dismiss as naive any notion that Vos would willingly give up power. And they have good reasons for that. 

But instead of refusing to offer amendments or even debate the maps proposal, as they did last week, Democrats might as well engage and take the opportunity to lay out their own vision for a truly fair system. They could use the moment to point out what’s wrong with the Vos proposal — it gives the Legislature’s GOP majority too much power to tweak the “nonpartisan” maps and gerrymander again — and to galvanize widespread public support among voters of every political stripe for a truly nonpartisan, fair system.

Toxic partisanship has poisoned our politics so thoroughly that neither side seems very serious about pursuing policy in the public interest — something that can only happen if they work together, make deals, grab any lever they can find to get something done.

To paraphrase Lyndon Johnson — a masterful politician with appalling ethical lapses who also managed to maneuver the Civil Rights Act through a reluctant Congress — what’s the point of having power if you don’t use it? 

This isn’t New Jersey. Wisconsin politicians aren’t getting rich. They might as well get something done for the people who elected them. Sooner or later that’s going to pay dividends.  


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Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine where she worked for many years from both Madison and Washington, DC. Shortly after Donald Trump took office she moved with her family to Oaxaca, Mexico, and covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Trump. Conniff is the author of "Milked: How an American Crisis Brought Together Midwestern Dairy Farmers and Mexican Workers" which won the 2022 Studs and Ida Terkel award from The New Press. She is a frequent guest on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, CNN, Fox News and many other radio and television outlets. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. She lives in Madison, Wisconsin with her husband and three daughters.