Steven Walters: Why top Republicans target GAB, its director

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Steven Walters
Monday, October 20, 2014

Poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote this famous phrase: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

Republican leaders in the Capitol have a brutal version of it: “Why do we hate thee, Government Accountability Board? Let us count the reasons.” State Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, a Republican who is expected to keep that powerful job for two more years, recently exploded at the GAB and its executive director, Kevin Kennedy.

The GAB oversees the administration of elections, campaign finance laws and ethics codes. It was created in 2007 by merging the elections and ethics boards.

Kennedy administers the GAB, implementing policies set by six retired judges who make up the board and serve part time.

But, Vos told reporters, Kennedy is an “embarrassment” who “must go.” And GAB is a “dysfunctional” and “undemocratic” agency that won’t be around in its current form in two years, the GOP leader promised.

The criticism from one of the most powerful Republicans in the Capitol was stunning for several reasons:

It was a public personal attack on a state official who has worked on elections for 35 years. Personal attacks like that usually are first sent through Capitol back channels. It pretty much told Kennedy to retire or Vos will make sure he loses his job. And it came only weeks before the Nov. 4 elections.

So exactly why do Vos, Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald and other Capitol Republicans dislike the GAB and Kennedy?

Let us count five reasons.

-- Without a heads-up to legislators, Kennedy’s GAB redesigned ballots for the Nov. 4 election, sending a recommended template to local election clerks. Vos and Fitzgerald said they were blindsided by the GAB proposal, which they said made it easier to vote for Democratic candidates.

Although many local clerks ignored the GAB’s proposal, Vos and Fitzgerald sued to block its use. A Waukesha County judge threw out their lawsuit, saying Republican leaders should have first filed a formal complaint with the GAB.

-- In June 2013, the GAB judges unanimously—and secretly—voted to join John Doe investigations by local prosecutors into possible illegal collusion between business and independent groups trying to help Gov. Scott Walker and Republican senators survive recall elections.

Four months later, Walker quietly rescinded his appointment of one of those GAB judges—David Deininger, a former Republican legislator and court of appeals judge.

Although Walker said it had become obvious that Deininger’s GAB appointment would not be confirmed by the Republican-controlled Senate, it’s fair to speculate that the GAB’s vote to join the John Doe probes played a role in the dumping of Deininger.

-- When it became clear that eight Republican senators who voted for Gov. Scott Walker’s Act 10 changes would face recall elections, Fitzgerald and GOP lawyers asked GAB to call those recall elections in their new districts—districts drawn by Republican legislators only months earlier.

Instead, the GAB required the eight GOP senators—three of whom lost their seats—to face recall elections in their old districts. Three Democratic senators also faced recall elections but kept their seats.

Act 10 all but eliminated collective bargaining for most public employees and made them pay more for health care and pension benefits.

-- GAB also angered Fitzgerald when it set separate dates for the 2011 recall elections for Senate Republicans and Democrats: July 19 for one Democratic senator; Aug. 9, 2011, for five GOP senators; and Aug. 16, 2011, for two more Democratic senators.

Fitzgerald had argued that all Senate recall elections should be held on the same day. Instead, the GAB decided to hold recall elections as soon as signatures on recall petitions could be verified.

-- Finally, Kennedy questioned—and tried to change—a top priority of Republicans: requiring a photo ID to vote.

In April 2011, in written testimony before an Assembly committee, Kennedy especially objected to a requirement that those casting absentee ballots must also submit photo ID proof of their identities. One in five votes in the 2012 presidential election was cast absentee.

“There is minimal purpose in requiring photo identification of (absentee) voters, and the current proposal contains so many exceptions and variations it will be extremely difficult for poll workers,” Kennedy told Republicans.

Now, the only thing Vos wants Kennedy to write is his resignation.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit WisconsinEye public affairs channel. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com.


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