Dissing the Bill Payers

Who is the most powerful civic leader in Wisconsin’s second-largest city? A business journalist acquaintance answered Jerome Frautschi, the millionaire philanthropist and printing house panjandrum.

As the imperious moderator on TV’s The McLaughlin Group would proclaim: WRONG!

The frustrated visionary wanted to spend $10 million of his own money to rehab the tumble-down 100 block of State Street. He would save the most compelling architectural details while opening up some public space to visually connect the State Capitol to the Overture Center for the Performing Arts, which he donated to the city. This would be no open-pit mine. He asked not one dime of taxpayer subsidy.

The nerve! For all his good works, the man was forced to grovel before Madison Common Council members barely old enough to vote and its multifarious committees, dominated by public sector employees accustomed to spending other people’s money.

Frautschi surrendered peacefully, hands in the air, when the appointed chairman of the City Landmarks Committee, Stu Levitan, with no skin in the game, imposed his own vision of what might pass muster before his star chamber, complete with scale model! Mayor Soglin’s reaction? Don’t blame the city when projects fall through. (Welcome to Business 101 in Madison, Wis.)

Retiring this year, Jennifer Alexander will leave the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce stronger than she found it nine years ago. No longer must the GMCC beat back the Progressive Dane agenda of a city-only minimum wage, mandatory sick leave, rent controls, and “affordable housing” mandates. The chamber’s resumption of political activity in 2007 is getting results.

Yet businesspeople remain second-class citizens in the Madison metro area, though the private sector (surprise) is its largest employer. They continue to bow and scrape to the whims of minor demagogues who have no capital at stake, no payrolls to meet – naifs who equate free market success with greed. That attitude works its way into the bureaucracy. Developers still don’t get clear direction from city staff. Unelected neighborhood activists inflict a thousand paper cuts on needed in-fill projects.

It’s time for a true change agent

The new GMCC president – whether it is George Austin, Delora Newton, Zach Brandon, Tom Still, Brandon Scholz, Terrence Wall, Jim Pugh, James Buchen, Tim Cooley, Jonathan Barry, or a player to be named later – needs to be the Madison version of Chris Christie: blunt, well-spoken and fearless. Someone to change the terms of the debate. Another Kaleem Caire.

This is where Blaska, unpaid consultant (and worth every dime) exercises his genius. I say, take the selection process out of the chamber boardroom and into the business community. Make it the equivalent of the Republican presidential primary, complete with debates. Announce your candidacy for chamber president at a press conference. Put out a platform, buy advertising, flood the mailboxes of the city’s businesspeople – not just the 42 GMCC directors who will actually choose or even the 1,450 dues-paying members.

Espouse a bold and compelling vision. The next chamber president should:

• Put up billboards, do talk radio, bring lawsuits, seize the public square.
• Educate the citizenry on how wealth is created and where jobs come from.
• Recruit candidates from its employee ranks and raise major campaign money for them. (Quick, name one businessperson who serves in local government other than bar owner Dave Wiganowsky.)
• Square off against the teachers union, the single greatest force for Big Government socialism in the community.

If I am wrong, then the GMCC is too big to move without getting in its own way. Perhaps it is time for an alternative, unabashed, and muscular association of conservative businesspeople who make no apologies for the American Dream.

Rep. Paul Ryan says “courage is on the ballot” next month. “If Scott Walker or these state senators get recalled in June, what governor or state legislator in the future is going to take on these big structural challenges?”

Is there no businessperson in Dane County who can summon the same courage on behalf of free enterprise and economic growth? If not in this year of decision, when?

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