Day 18, 19, 20, 21: Wisconsin, recall, grassroots democracy and cheese

The last leg of the trip took us to Wisconsin, one of the centres of North American grassroots democracy in the last two years. As leader of a party that supports citizen-initiated referenda and recall, I was looking forward to meeting people who experienced it first hand.

We arrived in Madison and had the afternoon to catch up on business back home. First meal in Wisconsin was – you guessed it – cheese. Cheese plate, deep fried cheese curds, and macaroni and cheese. A Wildrose supporter in Wisconsin let me know about a political Pints and Politics event night hosted by the Dane County Republicans at the Esquire Club that night. One of the speakers was the daughter of Senate candidate and former Governor Tommy Thompson. I also discovered that the President was going to be in Madison for a rally on Thursday. Unfortunately we couldn’t attend. When the president comes to a community it’s a whole day commitment. You have to preregister and arrive at 7 am to get your place and the President arrives sometime between noon and 6 pm. We had meetings so it wasn’t possible to see his speech. But I did get a Romney-Ryan lawn sign from the Republicans.

(I used a taxi service called Green Cab to get to and from the event. They have a cool business model. They carpool to pick up customers (they pick up as many as four) so I shared a cab with a Chinese foreign student who was in her first year of university. The cabs are hybrid and fully decked out with GPS and iPad to communicate with dispatch. They also charge a flat fee per ride, regardless of how long the drive is. It cost me $5 (+tip) for the fare. Very cool.)

The next day we stopped into the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice which is a coalition of self-described “progressive” activist groups and citizens. Their missions-in-common include alternatives to militarism, economic justice, respect for diversity, grassroots democracy, and the environment.

We met with Democratic representative Brett Hulsey – 77th Assembly District – who made his career as a Sierra Club environmental advocate. As he pulled a notebook out of his bag, a button fell out that said I Buy American. We didn’t agree on much, but he was a gracious host. He took us over for an authentic Chicago style double dog and a walk through the Farmer’s Market. Madison is definitely on my list of US cities to visit again. Hulsey was at the centre of the action when protestors occupied the legislature for 37 days over Gov. Scott Walker’s contentious legislation that ultimately led to the recall elections. A few links will give you an idea of how wild it got.

Wisconsin Assembly cuts off debate on contentious Act 10:

Republican Senator Glenn Grothman gets cornered by protestors:

The Government Accountability Board was next. It is an agency that combines the Chief Electoral Office and the Ethics Commissioner office. What I like best about it is it has operated since 2007 with an independent oversight board of 6 former judges. Since 2007 they have undertaken 6 major investigations into ethics issues and campaign financing violations. I suspect we would not have such a lax approach to ethics and electoral violations if we had this governance structure in Alberta. We received a lengthy briefing on how the board oversaw the 16 Senate recall campaigns in 2011 and the 6 recall campaigns in 2012 (which included 4 senators, the governor and lieutenant governor). Though much of the news reporting focussed on how Gov. Scott Walker withstood the effort to recall him, three Senate seats did change hands, which resulted in a change of control in the Senate from Republican to Democrat. The Office had a lot of advice about “what to do” and “what not to do” in drafting recall legislation.

That evening we watched the Romney-Obama debate which, by all accounts, was a clear victory for Romney. You can disagree if you like, but when Chris Matthews of Hardball loses it over his disappointment in Obama’s performance, that’s the sign of a pretty clear win.

The next day we visited the Milwaukee County Research Park which has a business incubator on its 160 acre site. The Technology Innovation Center is a self-supporting technology business incubator.  Currently 42 companies and over 320 employees occupy the building and it is seen to be one of the most successful parks of its kind. Part of the reason is that the business model is focussed on providing entrepreneurs spaces to do their work, rather than trying to run their businesses for them. One of the most successful
businesses onsite was an internet entrepreneur who sells favoured vapours for electronic cigarettes. He’s up to 30 flavours.

A meeting with the International Institute of Wisconsin gave us some insights into the process for family reunification and refugee claims in the US. One of the immigration consultants came to the US on their annual Green Card lottery. Amazingly enough, the US holds a lottery where they accept 55,000 households a year to immigrate to the US. Canadians aren’t eligible to enter though. :)

We next met with a representative from the Milwaukee Election Commission, the local commission that is charged with registering voters and conducting elections. The commission is comprised of three commissioners appointed by the Mayor and confirmed by the Council for four-year terms. Right now there are 2 Democrats and 1 Republican, because they were appointed before 2010 when the Democrats were the dominant party.

In the evening, a local resident hosted us for a delicious home cooked meal and more cheese. I’ll have to hit the treadmill hard when I get home.

On the last day in the US we met with the Budget and Management Division of the City of Milwaukee’s executive budget office.  This
city has maintained its Executive Mayor model, so the mayor as CEO appoints his own “cabinet” responsible for government departments. Since 2004 they have developed a new accountability model which sets outcome based targets, something a lot of politicians talk about but few actually achieve. Milwaukee appears to have begun to figure it out. Encouraging.

Our last meeting was with The Peer Solutions Program. We took part in a 2 hour Restorative Justice class, which is offered as a class during the school year and for credit as an alternative to suspension for problem students. Students are trained on how to conduct ‘repairing the harm’ circles, where they share stories and guide peers (who are about to be suspended) to take responsibility
for their actions and repair the damaged relationship. We were trying to help a young guy named Brandon figure out how to talk to his mom. Another student talked about her terrifying experience at another school experiencing a riot brought on by tensions between five rival ethic groups. It just breaks your heart to hear the hardships these young people have to deal with.

Had an enormous dinner at the Cheesecake Factory for the last night. All in all, I’m grateful for a terrific experience. Thanks so very much to the US State Department and the IVLP program for hosting me!

Expenses: If you didn’t read the <a href=”press” _mce_href=””>press”>”>press release for this trip</a>, no doubt you might be wondering, who’s paying for  this trip? Here’s the answer. The costs are covered by the US Department of  State, and the expense was $7,135 US for 19 days. With politicians’  travel expenses very much in the news lately, I thought you’d be interested in  knowing my expenses as we go.

I have always said that international travel is  an important part of the Premier’s job and, as Official Opposition Leader and  International and Intergovernmental Affairs and Aboriginal Relations Critic, I  think it is a necessary part of my job too. Knowing how the political system  works in the US in particular – our biggest customer and trading partner – is  increasingly important as we watch the Keystone pipeline project grind its way through the approval process. Knowing how this process works, including the  interplay between federal, state and local jurisdictions, and the impact of  NGOs on the entire process is vital information for an Alberta political leader  to have.

My criticism has not been about the fact that  the Premier and her ministers are taking international trips, it’s the  eye-popping price tag associated with them. You’ll notice this trip budgets out  at $375/day. The London Olympics trip cost $2,400/person/day.

Oct 2

$370.01     Holiday Inn in Bozeman (3 nights at average of $123.33/night)

$440.61     Flight from Bozeman to Madison, WI

$60.00     Baggage charge

$8.00     Breakfast at Copper Horse Restaurant

$31.00     Dinner at the Old Fashioned

$7.00     Green Cab

$8.00     Green Cab

Oct 3

$164.88      Best Western Suites (1 night at 164.88/night)

$4.50      Breakfast at Michelangelo’s Coffeehouse

$6.00     Lunch at Chicago Dogs

$40.00     Dinner at California Pizza Kitchen

Oct 4

$19.00      Lunch at Water Street Brewery

$20.00     Yellow Cab (Dinner at a private home)

Oct 5

$34.00     Lunch at Rock Bottom Brewery

$58.00     Dinner at The Cheesecake Factory

Oct 6

$311.97      La Quinta Hotel (3 nights at $103.99/night)

$837.62      Flight Milwaukee to Calgary

$60.00      Baggage

Summary of trip expenses:

Flights Baggage Hotels Internet Cabs/Metro Food* Cultural
$3,460.80 $292.00 $2,595.21 $39.90 $227.76 $432.75 $87.00 $7,135.42

*Adjusted for amount paid personally

Danielle’s Trip to Washington, New Orleans, Helena, Bozeman, Madison, Milwaukee

$375/day     Average daily cost per person

$7,135.42     Total cost of trip paid for by US State Department for 19 days


PC Government’s Trip to London Olympics

$2,400/day     Average daily cost per person

$14,522.50     Total cost of trip per person paid for by Alberta taxpayers for 6 days