For anyone who thinks that Wisconsin's propensity for unpleasant politics is a new thing that resulted from the GOP taking over all three branches of Wisconsin's government last year, I bring you the sad story of how Wisconsin got its official state dog.
In a Slate.com story about the defeat of legislation in Kansas to adopt an official state dog, I noticed this tidbit. In the mid-1980s, a New London, Wisconsin eighth grade teacher, Lyle Brumm, tried to teach his students about how government works by lobbying the Wisconsin Legislature to pass a bill naming the American Water Spaniel named the official state dog of Wisconsin. The dog was apparently first bred in New London. In lobbying on behalf of the dog, Mr. Brumm's students learned more about politics than Mr. Brumm probably expected.
According to the American Water Spaniel Club, Mr. Brumm and his students made 11 trips to Wisconsin's capital to lobby for the bill and also wrote hundreds of letters in support of the bill. The lobbying paid off and the Wisconsin Assembly passed the bill in 1983. In 1984, the bill was heard by the Wisconsin Senate's Committee on Urban Affairs and Government Operations. The senators were not content to simply vote the bill down, the mocked the kids while doing so. According to the New York Times (subscription required), a senator interrupted a child who was testifying by barking and howling. Both the Times and the American Water Spaniel Club reports note that Democrat Mordecai Lee, opined that making a dog a state symbol would lead to making a worm a state symbol. Senator Lee also said that bills should not be passed because students want them passed. It is unclear on whether this was a policy position of Senator Lee. However, Senator Lee did say that, "We don't need any more symbols." Republican Dan Theno, told the kids that the American Water Spaniel (a breed created in the kids' hometown) was a "flea-bitten mangy mutt that has the propensity to be ornery." Senator Theno also told the kids that the dog;'s tail was similar to a rat's tail. Mr. Brumm told reporters that the episode "shocked the kids" and presumably him as well. According to the Victoria Advocate, the Senate voted 23-9 to keep the bill in committee and not let it be voted on by the full Senate.
The kids returned to New London and got back to work. Newspapers learned of the episode and a number of editorials criticizing the Wisconsin Senate were published (including the one in the Times that I linked to above). Suitably chastised, Wisconsin's Senate Majority Leader, invited the kids to return to the Senate to try again. Also, Wisconsin Governor Tony Earl visited the kids in New London and told the kids he would return to New London and sign the bill in their presence when it passed. The bill subsequently passed by acclimation.
It should be said that it does not appear that the dog imbroglio damaged either Senator Lee or Senator Theno. While neither man ran for re-election, Senator Theno was elected Mayor of Ashland, Wisconsin when he ran for the office in 1986. Senator Lee has since become a professor of governmental affairs at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
One takeaway from this post would be that politics in Wisconsin has often been nasty. That would be true. On the other hand, note that the mocking of children was bipartisan. Perhaps that should make us nostalgic for a simpler time when politicians from both parties were willing to come together and squash the dreams of school children.