Steven Walters: They were stars in our eyes

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By Steven Walters
Monday, October 17, 2016

A former Capitol reporter once observed: “This is one big high school.”

So true. Wisconsin’s Capitol is an incestuous village with no secrets. Eventually, everyone knows who is doing what and with whom, and how often.

Important policy and spending decisions made in the Capitol, and the gripping dramas that set the stage for those decisions, create shared memories—bad and good. (“Remember, during the spring 2011 Act 10 protests, how your boss let protesters crawl through their office window?”) But you remember how high school-era dramas shaped your life.

There were high school stars; there are Capitol political stars. Some elected officials are so ambitious—“I could be…governor…U.S. senator…President”—that you no know they were high school valedictorians. There are as many lazy sloths in the Capitol as there were in high school. Both institutions—the Capitol and high school—have some really smart people, a few dumb-as-rocks classmates, and many in the intellectual middle. And, oh, the gossip!

There were cliques in high school; there are cliques in the Capitol—the CPA caucus, for example. High-school juniors can’t wait until the seniors are out of the way, so they can have more power. Political juniors in the Capitol can’t wait until current leaders move up, or move out, so they can run things their way. Both institutions—the Capitol and high school—have proud alumni, and other alumni with criminal records.

You knew which high school student could pretty quickly provide an illegal substance. Capitol veterans can find the closest office beer cooler.

Legislators and staffers socialize, hook up with and even marry those they work with in the Capitol—other legislators, staffers and lobbyists. How many marriages, whether they lasted or not, began in your high school? And, just like high school romances, liaisons that start in the Capitol break up marriages.

All this is why, just like in high school, there should be grief counselors available when there is a death at Capitol High.

There have been three deaths in the last 13 months at Capitol High. Each triggered a sense of loss, a wish you would have spent more time with that person, and a reminder of the thin reed that separates life and death.

—Republican Sen. Rick Gudex, 48, of Fond du Lac, died last week. Let others sort out the tragic details of what law officers said was a suicide. Gudex had announced last year that he would not seek a second four-year term on Nov. 8.

On April 22, in a WisconsinEye exit interview, Gudex was smilingly at peace with his decision to return to his life as a private business executive who could spend more time with his family. He would end four years as a senator in January. He had been a loyal Republican supporter of his party’s priorities. But it was time to go back home to a better-paying, more satisfying job.

To go back to the high school analogy, Gudex was the starting center on the football team who played hard, graduated and decided to not try and play Division I college ball.

—Kitty Rhoades, 65, a former Republican legislator, co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee and secretary of the state Department of Heallth, died on June 18.

You could disagree—and Democrats did—with Rhoades, but you could not dislike her. That gravel voice. The irony: the state’s top health officer could not stop smoking. The Miller Lite beer shared with her senior staff the night before she went to the hospital emergency room, suffering from pneumonia.

At Capitol High, Kitty was the captain of the cheerleading squad. You wanted her to help you with that English class assignment, hoping it would lead to a date that would let you get to know the person behind that impish grin.

—Supreme Court Justice Patrick Crooks, 77, died Sept. 21, 2015, in his Capitol office. In 39 years as a judge, almost 20 of them spent on the Supreme Court, Crooks had seen both the collegial and elbows-out partisan sides of the Court. He preferred collegiality.

At Capitol High, Crooks was the guidance counselor who was retiring in June. You were to meet with him at 9:20 a.m. tomorrow to discuss options after graduation.

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

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