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Pay no attention to the people behind the curtain

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

"I have always been a worker bee, and I let the work speak for itself."

by folkbum

I had the pleasure the other day of sitting down for an hour with State Senator Spencer Coggs. He's running for the Democratic nomination for Lieutenant Governor.

Coggs is or should be familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of state government, having served in the legislature for the last 27 years. And that was my first question for him: What is it that he thinks he can do as LG that he can't do as a state senator? His answer, that a LG should act as a liaison between the governor and the legislature, makes sense, and Coggs rattled off example after example of the way current-governor Jim Doyle has failed to communicate with the legislature. This includes the issue of a mayoral takeover of Milwaukee Public Schools, which Doyle mentioned almost off-handedly to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial board before ever broaching it with the leggies who would have to support it to make it a reality. Coggs says his years in the legislature and relationships with the people there make him a natural liaison.

We spent most of our time, actually, talking about MPS, since that's my paycheck and he was one of the forces behind a bill that would have prevented a mayoral takeover but brought in the mayor as a partner. The bill Coggs wrote with Rep. Tamara Grigsby would have created, in theory, a situation with "all hands on deck," as he termed it. He felt that as long as there was a pro-active mayor--and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett certainly has seemed committed to helping MPS--why not create a partnership with the board? But installing Tom Barrett as head of MPS was a bad idea, Coggs said, given that Barrett wasn't planning to stick around.

And speaking of exactly that, Milwaukee's Barrett as the Dem candidate for governor, I asked Coggs if he thought there was any credibility to the notion that the rest of the state would not vote for an all-Milwaukee (i.e., Barrett-Coggs) ticket. (My alderman, Tony Zielinski, dropped out of the LG race claiming that Barrett's people strong-armed him with exactly that line.) The question, according to Coggs, was not whether an all-Milwaukee ticket would be a problem outstate (and he said in fact that when he talks to people around the state, it never comes up), but rather whether Barrett without someone like Coggs can win the Democratic base.

Two things, Coggs said, about that. One, of course, is that the likely Republican nominee (although, sheesh, that side of the campaign is getting weird), Scott Walker, is from Barrett's home turf, and every southeast Wisconsin vote will be bitterly contested. But two is that, because of the MPS takeover thing and the bumbling way Doyle approached the matter, Barrett lost a lot of credibility with minority and progressive voters. Coggs, as an African American and one of the most progressive members of the Democratic caucus, could bring those voters back, he said. He also touted his personal experience leading GOTV efforts in places like Dane, Rock, and Brown counties, as well as in southeast Wisconsin.

A few other topics of discussion included the state funding formula for schools (it has never been sufficient for Milwaukee, Coggs said, and is marred by political favors) and why MPS--and Milwaukee in general--gets the short end of the stick (Milwaukee is not politically popular, he said, and Milwaukee has been excluded from leadership). This is something, he went on, that will come back on the state. "To not fund Milwaukee properly," he said, "is not good karma or good politics." And, supporting the top of the ticket, Coggs made it clear that one of Barrett's goals in this campaign is to show that we aren't living here in the state of Milwaukee and competing with the State of Wisconsin, but rather that we're one state and need to support each other.

The one part of the conversation that disappointed me was about health care, since Coggs has a health-care background. I noted that health care costs are a significant part of what's eating school budgets, and wondered what the state could be doing to address the expensive nature of health care and benefits. Aside from bragging about helping to start BadgerCare, and noting that health-insurance pooling is a possibility for public employee unions, there wasn't much.

But talking about health care did lead to a great story, the one that gives both the title of the post and a reasonable impression of the kind of person Spencer Coggs is. You may recall that a few years back the Isaac Coggs Health Center was in trouble. The name is not a coincidence, Isaac was Spencer's uncle. Though Spencer had nothing to do withe the center--it wasn't even in his Assembly district--and though everyone warned him about wading into the $5m financial morass that the place had become, Coggs realized that 25,000 people used the center for their health care needs, people who would have forgone care or found their way to the ER instead. He knew you couldn't close something like that. So he went in. He won funding from the feds, he found a strong CEO, and he made the place work again despite the risk to his own career.

"People"--and by people, he meant mostly moderate Democrats who only think about the next election--"people need to stop playing it safe," he said. "When you have political capital, invest it. Make it work for you." And that seems to be Coggs's attitude toward his current role as legislator and his potential future role as LG. He is tired of people who don't want to do the work of leading.

With the field for LG not yet set, and not having had this chance with any of the other candidates, I am not prepared today to offer any endorsements or guidance for Dem primary voters yet. But I will say this: We could do a lot worse than Spencer Coggs.

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