Vitriolic partisanship has no place on a serious, bipartisan governing apparatus.
NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE
ast week, as Wisconsin remained focused on the COVID-19 crisis, former state senate minority leader Jennifer Shilling quietly appointed Scot Ross, the former head of the liberal advocacy group One Wisconsin Now, to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission. He will fill a term that expires in May 2024. The commission wields tremendous authority involving enforcement of the state’s ethics laws for public officials. The responsibility associated with the role of a Wisconsin Ethics Board commissioner is serious. But Ross is perhaps the most unserious appointment Senator Shilling could have made. Ross is unprofessional, consistently spewing vile and vitriolic comments on social media. And he is unethical himself, having contributed to the 2001 Wisconsin caucus scandal involving public officials and staff campaigning on state time. This appointment should be a scandal. Yet with the exception of the State Journal, the mainstream media has provided little but matter-of-fact analysis. Its collective decision to pretend Ross is a worthy appointment has eviscerated any shred of relevance it may have maintained.
By Wisconsin statute, the commission consists of six members, four of whom are selected by the respective legislative leaders and two of whom must have previously served as judges and are nominated by the governor and reviewed by the state senate. With Ross being appointed by the minority leader, a confirmation vote is not required. The commission possesses tremendous responsibility under state law, including the power to subpoena witnesses and demand the production of documents, to bring civil actions to require a forfeiture for the violation of ethics laws, to sue for injunctive relief, and to issue orders and promulgate rules. Commission opinions are persuasive authority for attorneys who provide advice to public officials throughout the state.
For those unfamiliar with Ross, a cursory review of his Twitter feed reveals some of the vilest commentary imaginable. Just last week, he called a member of the Trump administration a “demon” who “stab[s] the throats of students,” called for the recall of two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, and implied that Milwaukee talk-show host Dan O’Donnell is a Klan member. He also argued Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty’s (WILL) Rick Esenberg (my former boss) should have recused himself in a recent Supreme Court argument. Yet based on his comments, it is unclear how Ross could ever be able to provide an unbiased analysis relating to any case involving a Republican official. Over the years, he has reserved some of his most incendiary comments for the Bradley Foundation, Governor Walker, Senator Johnson, and Speaker Ryan, at one point imploring the media to stop performing a sex act on the speaker. If you need further examples, O’Donnell has a great (albeit X-rated) review of some of Ross’s finest work.
Despite the often-grotesque nature of his social-media posts, the real scandal, and sad irony, relates to the fact that Ross himself was involved in the 2001 caucus scandal. Legislators and staff were found to have campaigned on state time, often from their very state offices. As a staffer to a Democratic member of the Wisconsin Assembly, Ross racked up nearly $4,000 in legal defense fees, all paid by the Wisconsin taxpayers. Frankly, the fact he has personal knowledge of campaigning on state time could be his only qualification for serving on the commission.
Unfortunately, with the exception of the Wisconsin State Journal, but for a few tweets and several matter-of-fact articles, the mainstream media has largely remained silent. It is hard to imagine the media reaction to an appointment by Majority Leader Fitzgerald of a similarly vitriolic conservative. However, it is equally difficult to even identify an analogous example. While one could certainly find a random right-wing Twitter troll, Ross is no random social media fixture. He is a former legislative staffer and previous head of one of the state’s most influential (and most liberal) 501(c)3s. The most biting commentary one hears from the head of One Wisconsin Now’s ideological counterweight, WILL, is that an argument is “not serious” or “without merit.” Hardly a fair comparison.
When I first read the news that Ross had been appointed to the commission, I thought it was a joke. Had one asked me who the most absurd appointment to the commission could conceivably be, I honestly may have answered Ross. The appointment could turn a serious and somber commission that addresses some of the most complex ethical questions in the state into a partisan circus. To be clear, many believe it is important that, instead of having “non-partisan” appointments to the commission, the leaders of the two respective parties should have the ability to make appointments, thereby providing a clear partisan balance. However, that policy decision rests on the assumption that the respective party leaders will make qualified appointments within their respective parties.
The work of the Wisconsin Ethics Commission requires reasoned and measured judgment. Ross possesses neither. In fact, he is quite possibly the most partisan appointment Shilling could have made. It is critical that the media and policymakers demand an explanation as to how Ross will be able to effectively operate on the commission. At a time when Wisconsin’s leaders should be lowering the partisan temperature, Shilling has poured gasoline on an already raging partisan inferno.
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