Steven Walters: ‘Capitol High School’ churns out stories, rumors

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Steven Walters
Monday, March 24, 2014

Several years ago, a fellow Capitol reporter said it best: “This building is just one big high school.”

How true.

The Capitol has got scared, nervous freshmen—first-term lawmakers and aides who also have never before worked in the building. “Exactly where is my office … the restrooms? What’s a ‘third order of business’? A ‘quorum call’?”

It’s got sophomores, who are beginning to flex their lawmaking muscles and learn how far to push, who will push back, when to back off and who can and cannot be trusted. “The Cold Beer and Warm Pizza Committee will convene. Clerk, call the roll.”

It’s got we-know-everything juniors, who can’t wait to push seniors out the door so they can run the place. “When I’m in charge, that will not happen. But this will…”

And those wacky seniors.

They’ve seen it all, good and bad. They want to leave a legacy—something to share with the kids—or grow up and be the principal, which is another word for governor.

“Capitol High School” has cliques, outcasts, Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. Leaders of Bible studies work with—and sit next to—Type A dysfunctionals. Like some high school students, they often drink—but they do it legally, however.

And geeks? It was the Assembly’s CPA caucus that went through the financials and found that the UW System was sitting on an $800 million surplus. That resulted in a two-year tuition freeze on all 26 campuses.

And alumni? Dozens of them lead the equivalent of Capitol High booster clubs, lobbying for current students to do them favors for the special-interest groups that pay them very, very well.

One other reason why the Capitol is one big high school: There are no secrets. Everybody pretty much knows who is dating, flirting or dissing who—and how often.

One male state senator who left office more than 10 years ago often privately shared who in the Capitol was trysting with someone besides that person’s spouse. That senator was so focused on others’ moral lapses that a reasonable conclusion was that the senator had his own dalliances.

If you follow the Capitol High School analogy, here’s one way to explain what happened to former Assembly Majority Leader Bill Kramer: The first-string blocking back on the state-ranked football team got thrown off the team.


Trained as a CPA and lawyer, the 49-year-old Waukesha County Republican was a bully. But you didn’t want the crude, quick-witted Kramer to publicly embarrass you.

Kramer may have rarely thrown or caught a pass, but he was sure good at blocking for all those stars in the Big Game.

And when Kramer said stuff other Assembly Republicans agreed with but were afraid to say, they privately cheered him on.

But, when he groped a female Assembly staffer and made repulsive comments to a female lobbyist, his fellow Assembly Republicans quickly stripped Kramer of his leadership role, asked that he not run again and said, if he does run again, he’ll face a primary challenge.

He’ll keep, however, the concealed weapon permit that allowed him to carry a gun on the Assembly floor.

The result?

Kramer’s Capitol High diploma will be in the mail. Nobody wants him to do the cap-and-gown stage walk.

Finally, one personal Capitol High School story.

Several years—and one job—ago, my two best friends in the Capitol press corps asked to speak with me privately. Did I know about the rumor that I had been seen out in Madison one night with a certain woman state senator?

   I broke up laughing, because I have never even been alone in a room—inside or outside the Capitol—with that state senator. (In the 1970s, covering Iowa’s Capitol, I learned to never mix reporting with your social life. But that’s another column.)

My friends were worried, though, that the rumor would hurt my nonpartisan credibility in the Capitol—something I had worked hard to protect since being assigned to cover it in 1988.

For a long time, I wondered how such a false rumor could get started.

Suddenly, I knew the answer: My wife looks like that senator, especially if you’ve had two, three, five or six drinks.

That’s especially true if you want to start rumors about another Capitol High School classmate.

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

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