Pay Attention: Picnics, Politicians and Tomorrow’s Politics

Written by Chuck Gruenwald on June 7, 2014

What event gives politicians a better opportunity for the usual photo ops than local picnics? As long as the crowd is united in a common theme that is friendly to the visiting dignitary or dignitaries, then there is a bumper crop of hands to shake, babies to kiss, and food to eat among a typical horde of humanity’s finest – or lowest, depending on that politician’s point of view.

At a Milwaukee picnic in the not-too-distant past, the governor, mayor of Milwaukee, and the Milwaukee County executive had taken turns addressing the crowd. As was expected, the governor was greeted with a combination of mostly silence, and a few boos thrown in. The crowd’s reception for the mayor was, well, “cold.” However, the county executive walked to the front of the crowd to the unavoidable sound of applause, whistles and cheering.

To those who lean left or believe that this is a story from the establishment media, it is easy to assume that this story occurred within the last four years. However, the picnic where Governor Jim Doyle was booed, Mayor Tom Barrett could hear his footsteps as he walked to the podium, and Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker had to wait for the cheers to die down before speaking happened in 2006.

Until the left’s 2010 political circus that lead to the embarrassing and unsuccessful recall of now-Governor Walker, most Americans had never heard of “that guy who wants to crush workers‘ rights.’” To those of us who live in the Midwest – specifically Wisconsin and northern Illinois, then-Milwaukee County Executive Walker had been making headlines as the conservative Republican – yes, conservative Republican – who was winning elections in a very Democrat-leaning county.

To most politicians, local media is the anti-picnic: a place where critics and opponents could talk about that person in an un-sanitized, uncontrollable environment. While Milwaukee radio – specifically WTMJ — concentrates on local politics, the wrath of program directors who use syndication as a crutch, and the damage caused by the Telecommunications Act of 1996 has caused Chicago radio stations to seemingly avoid the fertile grounds of Chicago, Cook County, and Illinois politics in favor of rehashing national topics.

One of the few bright spots in Chicago radio was the late Don Wade, a New York native who believed in extensive preparation for his morning talk show. If it weren’t for Don Wade, several local stories that would eventually create national ripples may never have received attention.

First, Don had discussed the rift between former Illinois Senator Peter Fitzgerald and the ruling elite within the Illinois Republican Party. Mr. Fitzgerald had largely funded his Senate campaign in 1998, effectively eliminating his “need” to cater to the Party. As the 2004 Senate campaign neared, Don reported how the Party’s higher-ups made no secret that then-Senator Fitzgerald would not have their support. As a result Mr. Fitzgerald announced that he would not seek a second term.

Well, the search for a new candidate caused a series of embarrassing, yet arrogant moves for the Illinois GOP – a series of moves that allowed a relatively unknown Democrat candidate by the name of Barack Obama to win that Senate seat – and the rest is history.
Had this story received more attention, the similarities between the ruling elites within both the Illinois and national Republican Parties – and their contempt for Republicans who cross the Party — may have been exposed much sooner. Could coverage of the GOP’s treatment of Peter Fitzgerald have caused a purging of incumbents in 2004, 2006 or 2008 — and a possible majority in at least one House of Congress? It definitely would have exposed the hypocrisy of the Republican battle cry of “supporting a Republican candidate, regardless of his or her opinions.”

Fast-forward to 2006. Illinois politics had become a parody of itself; then-Governor Rod Blagojevich and the Illinois General Assembly had reached a stalemate of petty proportions. Governor Blagojevich was refusing to sign recently-passed legislation – as well as compensation checks for former prison inmates who had been released after having their prison sentences overturned due to wrongful convictions. The governor was also refusing to meet with legislators after calling the General Assembly into special sessions.

As this was unfolding, Don Wade was the only member of the media whom I heard talk about then-Illinois Senator Obama’s answer to a reporter’s question about the meltdown in the state that he had been elected to represent. The Senator’s answer was revealing, brief, but revealing: “I am running for president, I don’t have time to pay attention to what is happening in Illinois.”

Today’s local politicians and business leaders are tomorrow’s politicians. If an alderman in an affluent suburb who wanted to maintain a specific image for his or her municipality by regulating what make and model cars are permissible to park in private driveways – as was the case in northern Cook County/southern Lake County about twenty years ago — then what type of laws would he or she support on the state or federal level?

In justifying the dependency on syndicated programming, the owners and managers of radio stations downplay the importance of local news; the end result is an over-saturation of national headlines. Trying to keep up with local news in Chicago is difficult; cutbacks in what newspapers offer, coupled with nationally-syndicated radio shows and local talk show hosts who do not sound as though they believe in show prep, lean toward discussing the seemingly easy national headlines.

While local politicians have to come out of hiding and mingle with the masses at picnics and other “photo ops” for the sake of fundraising, knowing what happens in-between those infrequent public appearances shouldn’t qualify as a privilege. Lazy coverage on the local level and disconnected syndicated programming have cheated many people out of learning about Scott Walker and Barack Obama – and the influence that they had before “earning the right” to be mentioned on a national level; just imagine who we aren’t hearing about right now.

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Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for