December 15, 2007

Two Democrats ready to oppose Rep. Ryan

There we were, trollling The Internets on a snowy Saturday afternoon, when what should we find (Thanks, Kay!): not one but two websites promoting Democratic candidates set to run against Paul Ryan, Wisconsin's 1st District Republican Congressman since 1998. One website was launched in June, the other in November; guess we've been sleeping.

We haven't met either Paulette Garin or Marge Krupp, but we've got some background and campaign information from their websites, whose links you can -- and should -- check out yourselves. Looks to us as though the Jeffrey Thomas era (four tries; best effort garnering 37% of the vote) is over. Fifth time's the charm?

Paulette Garin writes: "There will never be a better time to remove our GOP incumbent than 2008. We can link him and his voting record to the failed president he has blindly chosen to follow.

"It is my plan as your future Congresswoman to fight for Universal Health Care, ensure a quality education for all of our children, and demand an accountable government. I will be relentless in my efforts to protect our precious Civil Liberties, American jobs, and the environment. I will demand that our troops be brought home. Our Republican incumbent has failed at every one of the above mentioned issues, either by voting “NO!” or failing to take any action."

Garin's blog says her campaign kickoff fundraiser will be on Jan. 6, from 3-5 p.m., at the Boat House Pub, 4917 7th Ave., Kenosha.

Paulette Garin was born May 19, 1962, in Kenosha. Her father and campaign treasurer, Walter R. Garin, served as Local 960 Treasurer for over 30 years and was president of the Kenosha Union Club.

She graduated cum laude from UW-Whitewater with a BA in music, and worked as director of marketing for an IT consulting firm, later teaching piano from her home for 17 years. She earned an MA in Education in curriculum and instruction from Loyola University, Chicago, and became the music teacher at St. Paul Lutheran School, and later at 21st Century Preparatory School in Racine. In 2005 she earned a BS in business administration and accounting from UW-Parkside, graduating magna cum laude.

Health care: "I am most in favor of a universal, single-payer, not-for-profit health care plan that would be modeled after Medicare and would provide coverage to all Americans."

Education: "As an educator, I have seen first hand that the current state of public education in this country is at risk of leaving every child behind. New programs to support the underperforming have often been inadequately implemented due to improper funding. In the meantime, we fall behind in producing students ready to compete in a global economy.... The 'No Child Left Behind' program as it stands now must be overhauled."

Fiscal Responsibility: "I was raised fiscally responsible. My grandfather always said, 'It does not matter how much money you made, but how much you saved.' Our current president and his followers have driven this country into unimaginable debt with their privileged class tax cuts, irresponsible budget practices, and a war tab escalating out of control... I will work diligently against unfair tax cuts."

Iraq War: "The Iraq War has surpassed being an issue. It is the most unfortunate remnant to be left behind by the current failed administration. It is what happens when we, as a nation, allow ourselves to be manipulated by the politics of war."

Marge Krupp, who says she expects her campaign to cost $2 million, writes that Ryan "...consistently represents the privileged few at the expense of working families, and holds stubborn support for President George Bush's war in Iraq even after the voters spoke clearly in November of 2006 that we the people want a different direction. I felt so strongly I resigned my marketing job to devote my full time and talents to my campaign to defeat Paul Ryan. I decided to run for Congress because I feel a duty to my country to end the lies and half truths that President George W. Bush and Ryan stubbornly adhere to."

Marge Krupp was born on May 30, 1956, in Racine, graduating with honors from Horlick High School. In 1978, she received a BS from UW-Milwaukee in chemical process engineering, and an MBA from Northwestern University in 1983, with honors. She holds a Professional Engineer License in Wisconsin.

She worked at SC Johnson in consumer and engineering project management, and at Abbot Labs since 1990. She and her husband, Dan live in Pleasant Prairie; their son, Andrew, attends UW-Whitewater.

Ending the war in Iraq: "The choice is between Bush and Ryan's support for indefinite occupation and my demand for a real plan that will bring our troops home and strengthen our national security. While our soldiers have accomplished everything that has been asked of them, there is still no plan from Bush and Ryan to start bringing our troops home."

Working for solutions to the Health Care Crisis: "Americans are ready for an honest discussion about health care. Southeastern Wisconsin pays the most in the nation for health care. We have to approach this issue with a pragmatic, open-minded, can-do attitude. Both the health of our citizens and the health of our economy are at stake."

Supporting Working Families: "Congressman Paul Ryan refused to support a bill that provides protections for workers to form unions - Employee Free Choice Act HR 1696. Americans have died for the right to form Labor Unions. Congressman Ryan has no right to weaken what was so valiantly fought for."

19,000 city tax bills contain error; new bills in the mail

The city undercharged about 19,000 property owners $67 on property tax bills sent out this month, according to City Administrator Ben Hughes.

The mistake was made by GCS Software, Inc., the company hired by the city to print tax bills. The company made a data-entry error that was caught on Friday, Hughes said in an email to city officials and council members.

The error only affects property owners who receive a state lottery tax credit and pay their taxes in four quarterly installments. Anyone who pays their bill all at once is not affected by the error, Hughes said.

Anyone who pays quarterly was undercharged $67.57.

New bills are being sent out before Dec. 22. It will cost about $10,000 to send out the new bills; GCS will reimburse the city for the expense.

Here is Hughes' Dec. 14 email to the council:
Dear Aldermen,

I am writing to keep you informed regarding the property tax bills that were mailed earlier this week. As you may know, we have approximately 28,000 parcels of properties that receive tax bills. We prepare these bills with the assistance of a private corporation called GCS. They assist dozens of cities and villages throughout Wisconsin in the preparation of property tax bills and they are based in Onalaska. We learned today that an error exists in approximately 19,000 property tax bills. This error is related to those bills that contain a lottery tax credit. The GCS personnel made a data entry error that we failed to identify until today.

The city allows for bills to be paid in two formats: complete (100%) payment or using a four payment installment plan that we include at the bottom of the tax bill. The 19,000 bills that are incorrect contain an error in the first of the four installment payment amounts. This error undercharges the tax payer by $67.57. No error exists in the amount to be paid if 100% payment is made.

I attached a press release that was sent at 5:00 P.M. today to all of our print and electronic media outlets. I also proactively called The Journal Times and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to personally explain this issue. We fully expect that articles will appear this weekend. The press release is self-explanatory in how we will address this issue. I will be available all weekend for you to call me on my cell phone (REDACTED). I accept full responsibility for this mistake and I realize that many of you will receive phone calls and complaints about the inconvenience and confusion that it will cause. I am meeting with the owners of GCS on Monday to express our dissatisfaction with their service. It will cost approximately $10,000 to print and mail 19,000 revised bills. Every dime of this expense will be paid by GCS.

Once again, I apologize for this error.


December 14, 2007

Mount Pleasant official chides local website at public meeting

It seems the citizen journalists over at Mount Pleasant Citizen are getting on the nerves of village officials.

The village took the website to task in its official newsletter and attacked the group at a public meeting. The most recent run-in came over the Village Board's decision to award former board member Ed Potter a 3-year, $417,300 contract to become Mount Pleasant's new tax assessor.

The Citizen had questioned whether Potter made the low bid and dug up some documents suggesting he wasn't. Turns out, village officials verbally added another requirement onto the bid process without making the change public. The change made Potter the low-bidder and set off Village Administrator Mike Andreason at a recent meeting.

Here's how the Citizen reported it:
Mr. Andreasen took the opportunity to publicly chide the Mount Pleasant Citizen for what he called "inaccurate information" on the website. Said Andreasen "The Mount Pleasant Citizen chose to report a cost not consistent with the service level used in the comparisons presented to you this evening."

Mr. Andreasen chose not to disclose that representatives from MP Citizen asked him for a meeting to discuss and clarify the bidding before releasing the website article, but Andreasen declined to meet.
First, there is nothing to suggest Potter will be anything but professional and competent as village assessor. But being a former board member, his bid should be given close scrutiny by an independent news source. The Citizen is filling the gaping hole left by the JT's abandonment of Mount Pleasant.

Second, it's a compliment to the Citizen that village officials are taking them seriously enough to address so publicly. It's a strong local website ... we could use more like them. Keep up the good work, Mike!

Great Lakes mayors warn: Don't mess with our water

Mayors Miller, Daley and Becker

Ten Great Lakes mayors had a clear message for the rest of the country today: Don't mess with our water.

They issued challenges to presidential candidates, Congress, state legislatures and Canadian Federal governments to protect the lakes, approve regional compacts and recognize the importance of "one of the largest surface freshwater supplies in the world."

And they made clear they want cities to have a seat at the table whenever Great Lakes issues are to be decided. Said Mayor Denis Lapointe of Salaberry-de-Valleyfield, "When we talk about the Great Lakes, we're talking about economies and qualities of life. Cities are the level of government that invests the most money."

In response to a question, at the mayors' wrap-up press conference, about whether protecting the lakes would hamper the development of businesses that require water, Racine Mayor Gary Becker said, "We love industry. That's what cities were built around. But if it's done, we want it done right."

Becker, acting as host of the midyear meeting of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative Board of Directors, said Congress must "move forward and pass legislation to implement the Great Lakes Regional Collaboration Strategy. Local governments are doing their fair share. Federal and state governments must step up and take some responsibility."

He noted that the Great Lakes water compact is still not before the Wisconsin legislature, despite having already been passed by Illinois and Minnesota. (It was signed by the eight governors two years ago this week.) The mayors specifically urged the state legislatures of Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin to implement the compact; without passage in all states it cannot become law.

Becker laid out the key thrust very simply: "If you take water beyond the edge of the basin, you must return it. And in the same quality."

Mayor Richard M. Daley of Chicago said the group urges all presidential candidates to support the compact, through which Great Lakes states and Canadian provinces cooperatively manage lake waters. "Today, we call upon elected officials and candidates for office to publicly commit to concrete policy positions regarding the preservation and management of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence."

After the primaries, each presidential candidate will be sent a questionnaire seeking their positions "on a number of critical issues currently facing the Great Lakes region," Daley said. He noted that the eight Great Lakes states have 25% of the electoral votes. "Just one of our states could decide the election," Daley said. "This should be one of their agendas."

Mayor David Miller of Toronto -- after noting that "Racine is the leader in making sure beaches are swimmable and clean." -- said, "We're at a crossroads. Years ago, our agenda was leading edge.But now we must renegotiate the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which was last negotiated in 1987."

It's necessary to open it up, he said, because new issues -- like climate change, which has dramatically reduced lake levels -- have come to the fore.Mayor Ellen Anderson of the Town of the Blue Mountains agreed: "It costs $5 million to move a water intake pipe as lake levels recede."

Becker said he felt good as the meeting wrapped up at Wingspread, citing success in "elevating the issues." He noted that when Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico said, "The Great Lakes are awash in water," the mayors pounced and got the presidential candidate to rethink his position. "Trying to reshape Mother Nature will bite you," Becker noted wryly.

A light moment, when best laid communications plans went awry

December 13, 2007

The Artful Shopper finds stocking stuffers

OK, it's about a week before Christmas and you've already got the big present your spouse has been hinting for: maybe a Vespa for him, pearls for her (or perhaps something more practical, alas).

Still, that's the entree´, the main course for Christmas morning; the gift you've hidden behind the tree (or in the garage) to bring out last. But you still need an amuse-bouche ... something to whet the appetite and set the stage for what's to come. A stocking stuffer with pizzaz, in other words. Try one of these gifts we found downtown:

This unusual watch is 'Buster Bones,' a limited edition trapezoid that comes in a collector's case from California artist Sonya Paz. These watches were included in last year's Academy Awards gift bag. $75, from Northern Lights.

Fun jewelry always works, and you never have to worry about size. Molly MaGruder has pretty Firefly crystal and bead necklaces, starting at $20.

Prefer the practical? Then how about Life is Good cotton socks, ultra soft, washed cotton in soft colors and many designs. $10 at Copacetic.

Here's something we had to see in use to really understand. It's a small metal insert that turns a wine bottle, or any decorative bottle, into a distinctive candelabra. Note the built-in bobeche to catch melting wax. It's called the Bottlelabra, and is available for taper and tealight candles, $11, at Artistry Furniture.

Finally: riotous colors! Decorative and artistic glass boxes (yes, they fit into a stocking!) by Mark Lewanski. They're fashioned in an Italian glass technique, and hand-painted to maintain a contemporary look. From $32, at Monfort's Fine Art.

Previous Artful Shopper excursions:
A gift for teacher is HERE.
Unusual hostess gifts are HERE.

PROPERTY TRANSFERS: Advanced Auto Parts lot sells for $1.76 million; Sale at State & Main

A transaction for $1.76 million jumps out of this week's property transfers. The address is listed as 5618 Washington Ave., though the tax ID number points to a property at 5534 Washington Ave. The 5534 address is the new Advanced Auto Parts on Washington. The 1.1 acre plot was assessed at $695,000 this year. The property is owned by Clubhouse Wisconsin, which is based in Green Bay. No other information was available on Clubhouse Wisconsin.

Five acres of land at 8224 Washington Ave. sold Dec. 10 for $575,000. The property was listed by The Realty Company as a 10-acre parcel with two lots. One of the lots was listed at $575,000 and the second at $375,000.

Also notable:

* A unit at the new State & Main building in Downtown Racine sold for $204,000.

* Two homes sold in Sturtevant for over $300,000 a piece.

* The top-selling home of the week was at 600 S. Beaumont in Dover. The 4 BR ranch on 10 acres sold for $360,000. It was listed at $399,800 by Keefe Real Estate, Inc.

* Not in the transfers this week, Re/MAX is listing a state-of-the-art equestrian estate for $2 million in Dover. The property includes a 5/8-mile track, pond and beach, and lots for a new home.

Too many Wisconsin schoolkids start the day hungry

A press release from Sen. Herb Kohl's office on Tuesday caught our eye. It began:
"A 'School Breakfast Scorecard' released today by the Food Research and Action Center ranked Wisconsin first among 45 states that saw an increase in the number of children participating in the school breakfast program."
Chew on that for a second or two. What it really says, without actually saying it anywhere, is that Wisconsin has been last, or close to last, in feeding low-income kids school-provided breakfasts. Thirty-four percent of Wisconsin's public school kids are eligible for free and reduced-price lunches. At Racine Unified, 46.7% are eligible.

The glass-half-full statistic cited in the release states proudly: "The School Breakfast Scorecard indicated that Wisconsin increased by 25.3% the number of children participating in the school breakfast program in 2007." Not bad; the state with the next highest gain was Idaho, with a mere 10.9% increase.

But the glass-half-empty version, not mentioned in the release, shows that Wisconsin has had more schoolkids with empty tummies than anywhere else in the country. In 2005-'06, the state was 51st, dead last behind 49 states and the District of Columbia, in the percentage of free-lunch-eligible kids who also got a free or reduced price breakfast. In 2006-'07, we jumped up -- to 46th. We're now feeding breakfast to 35.7% of the kids whose parents' low income makes them eligible for free lunches.

Other states are far more successful. New Mexico, for example, feeds breakfast to 61% of its kids eligible for free lunch, based on family income.

The issue is the schools themselves. Currently, only 61% of Wisconsin's public and private schools that participate in the federal school lunch program also participate in the voluntary school breakfast program. (In Arkansas -- and I hate it when we're behind Arkansas in anything -- every school offering lunch also offers breakfast.)

At Racine Unified, only 13 of 34 schools offer breakfast to students: Horlick High School, Gilmore Middle School and 11 elementary schools: Julian Thomas, Janes, Knapp, Wadewitz, Mitchell, Fratt, Johnson, Goodland, Jerstad, Olympia Brown and Gifford. One of the roadblocks at elementary schools (besides funding) is that the schools use the gym as a cafeteria, and don't have time to clean up after breakfast before a first period gym class starts. Unified would like to implement a "Breakfast in the Classroom" program, but it's still in the developmental stage.

The highest-serving elementary school is Julian Thomas, with 91.1% eligible but serving breakfast to only only 39.1%. Districtwide, the percentage of free/reduced qualifying students was 46.7% in May, and the district served breakfast to 6.2% of its students.

Still, this dismal percentage masks progress: In 2001, the district served just 75,513 breakfast. In the 2006-07 school year, total breakfasts served was 183,074. Breakfasts include cereal, snack, 100% juice and a carton of milk. Federal reimbursement rates for free breakfasts are $1.65; for reduced eligibility it's $1.36. Unified gives a free breakfast to all kids who qualify for either free or reduced price.

School breakfasts became an issue in Wisconsin in May 2000, when Sen. Kohl held a Congressional hearing in Green Bay to examine persistent childhood hunger issues. Later that year, he established a project in Wisconsin to provide funding for schools to help offset the costs associated with starting the federal school breakfast program.

The expansion of the state's breakfast program "shows tremendous progress by Wisconsin's schools that will have a positive impact on students, teachers and their learning environment," Kohl said this week. "Evidence shows that the school breakfast program boosts academic performance and reduces behavioral problems, decreasing the classroom distractions that make it tough for teachers to teach and students to learn."

Kohl has obtained six federal grants to expand the school breakfast program in Wisconsin. The first three, totaling $2 million, funded breakfast programs in 247 schools, expanding breakfast access to 100,902 students. The next three grants, for $2.7 million, went to UW Extension and brought over 1,000 schools into the program.

The complete Food Research and Action Center School Breakfast Scorecard report is HERE.

And the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction has lunch and breakfast statistics for every school in the state HERE.

December 12, 2007

Nativity Scene up on Monument Square

A Nativity Scene quietly appeared on Monument Square this week. It may soon have some company.

A group calling itself the Christmas Coalition of Churches filled out the needed forms for the Christmas display and is also planning a caroling concert Saturday on Monument Square.

The group was required to pay a $25 administrative fee, put down a $300 deposit and have a current certificate of insurance while the display is up.

Tom Molbeck, the city's manager of recreation and cultural services, said Wednesday that another group had taken out forms and is likely to apply for a display. The name of the group is unavailable until they file the forms with the city's Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Services.

The Nativity Scene is the same one that was put up last year on Monument Square after Wind Point resident Bob Wortock fought for the Christian symbol to be displayed on public property. It is scheduled to be up through Jan. 9.

December 11, 2007

John Wisch appointed to County Board

John Wisch, of Caledonia, was appointed to the County Board Tuesday night to replace former board member Dave Hazen.

Wisch, 54, is vice president of purchasing for Allied Pools in West Allis. He will represent the east side of Caledonia and serve out the remainder of Hazen's term. He's taken out papers to run for the seat in April.

County Board President Mike Miklasevich appointed Wisch. He said he appointed Wisch because he was well-educated, had been a resident of Caledonia for 10 years and had attended County Board meetings to get a feel for what he was getting into.

"He'll fit in very well," Miklasevich said.

Hazen resigned in November after being named chief finance officer of the Racine Unified School District. He was elected to the County Board in 2004 and served nine years on the Unified School Board.

Melissa Taylor, 41, of Caledonia, also applied for Hazen's seat. Miklasevich said she was qualified for the seat, but questioned if she had time to serve on the board. "Her plate is pretty full," he said, noting that she had not taken out papers to run for the seat in April.

Miklasevich announced Wisch's appointment at Tuesday night's County Board meeting. It was the final board meeting of 2007.

In a first for the board, County Clerk Joan Rennert recorded the entire meeting with the intention of uploading it to the website this week. The board intends to record future meetings, as well, Miklasevich said.

Movie fan is making his mark downtown

So, do you get it?

Have you been walking around downtown and seen the painted store windows? Do you know what's going on? Or will you have to wait until more windows are painted? Here's a hint: "You'll shoot your eye out."

Nothing, eh?

Well, read on, but here's the final spoiler alert, as they say in movie reviews, for that's exactly what downtown is becoming. Monte Osterman, of Osterman Granite and Marble, is trying to turn Main Street's retail stores into a walking art tour, one dedicated to his favorite holiday movie, A Christmas Story.

"It's a movie everyone relates to, what everyone knows about being a kid in America," Osterman said. "I just thought it would be an interesting way to bring people downtown."

The BB gun movie?

"It's the quintessential Christmas gift," Osterman says, laughing. "Oh, sure, I got one. Absolutely." He laughs. "It's fun, it's cool. The neat thing is the movie harkens back to more wholesome times."

A Christmas Story is the 1983 movie made from Jean Shepherd's memoir of growing up in Indiana in the 1940s, when 9-year-old Ralphie Parker's whole life revolved around his longing for the perfect Christmas gift: a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model BB rifle with a compass in the stock. ("No, you'll shoot your eye out," said his mother," his teacher ... even the department store Santa.)

Osterman, like Ralphie, is undeterred; he's organizing an ambitious street art project that starts with a spreadsheet breaking the movie down into its iconic scenes: The Santa Slide, Leg of Lamp, Chinese Turkey ... I could go on. Not only do I have his spreadsheet, but I just rented the movie so it's all fresh in my mind.

Osterman has tried to match each scene to an appropriate retailer. Pink Bunny Blues, for example, went to Seams Unlimited at 401 Main, where costumer Kitty Schweitzer has sewn her own version of Aunt Clara's inappropriate gift, which now sits in her front window.

Soap Connoisseur, which recalls Ralphie's punishment with a bar of Lifebuoy after a certain profanity escaped his lips, now graces the doorway to Common Scents, 303 Main, which sells -- you'll have to take my word for this -- better-tasting soaps.

Copacetic, owned by Osterman's wife, Mary, at 409 Main, is a hat mecca; it's decorated with a scene called Tree Bargaining, with everyone so attired.

And so it goes.

So far, five artists from Main Gallery -- Katie Iselin, Rachel Pettit, Katy Rovick, Zena Mengesha and Andrew Quirk -- have agreed to paint windows; eight are already done. Spectrum Gallery artists have said they are eager to participate as well, and painting supplies have been donated by Sanders Paint and Wallpaper, 511 Sixth St. More artists are welcome. You can reach Osterman at 632-7887.

If you haven't seen the movie lately, now would be a good time. But be forewarned:

At Blockbuster on Durand, where I picked up a copy, the clerk was a fount of information: The house where the movie was filmed has been turned into a Ralphie museum; Jean Shepherd wrote at least two sequels, one involving marbles and the other about a more grown-up Ralphie seeking a tuxedo for prom. The clerk recommends neither. But he rhapsodizes about A Christmas Story.

"The movie is really popular, both as a rental and for sale. It's the new It's a Wonderful Life. "

"Oh, no," I said. "Nothing will replace Jimmy Stewart."

"Different generations," the 20-something clerk said. "For me, it's definitely A Christmas Story."

Decide which generation you fit into, and rent accordingly.

PROPERTY TRANSFERS: Yorkville home sells for $455,000

The big seller listed in last week's property transfers (see below) was a $455,000 home in the Town of Yorkville (right). The house is located on 3 acres at 14828 Plank Road and was assessed at $413,800 in 2007. The list price for the 4 br, 3 bath home through Century 21 was $475,000. It had been on the market for over 30 days.

The most expensive home to sell in the city of Racine was a $256,500 home at 1518 Spring Valley, located near Meadowbrook Country Club. The 5 br, 3 1/2 bath home (right) includes a gazebo in the back deck with a view of the golf course. It was listed at $249,900 with ERA.

Study: Racine County employment outlook weakest in the nation

Racine County employers expect to hire at a dismal pace during the first quarter of 2008, according to the Manpower Employment Outlook Survey.

Among survey participants, the Racine County employment outlook is expected to be the weakest in the nation.

From January to March, 3% of the companies interviewed plan to hire more employees, while 40% expect to reduce their payrolls, according to Manpower spokesperson Kimberly Miller. Another 54% expect to maintain their current staff levels and 3% are not certain of their hiring plans.

“Area employers appear to be significantly decreasing hiring levels when compared with the fourth quarter. For the fourth quarter of 2007, 40% of companies interviewed intended to add employees, and 27% planned to reduce staff levels,” said Miller.

“Employers expect much less hiring activity as compared to one year ago, when 20% of companies surveyed planned to raise staff levels and 27% expected to trim payrolls.”

For the coming quarter, employers in Construction, Durable and Non-Durable Goods Manufacturing and Wholesale/Retail Trade plan to reduce staffing levels, while those in Services voice mixed hiring intentions. Hiring in all other sectors is expected to remain unchanged.

After seasonal adjustments have been applied to the survey results, U.S. employers foresee a solid start to 2008 and expect to maintain a steady hiring pace. Of the 14,000 U.S. employers surveyed, 22% expect to add to their payrolls during the first quarter of 2008, while 12% expect to reduce staff levels. Sixty percent expect no change in the hiring pace, and 6% are undecided about their January – March hiring plans.

December 10, 2007

'Congratulations, here's $1 million!'
Ryan neglects to point out that he voted 'no'

"I am pleased to inform you," wrote U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI, 1st District, of a $1 million federal grant. "Please do not hesitate to contact me if you need help in the future. I am always happy to respond and be of service to you."
That letter, sent on Nov. 29 to the Opportunities Industrialization Center of Racine (OIC), announced approval of a four-year, $250,000 per year grant from the U.S. Department of Education to provide college prep tutoring to 60 students at Case and Park High Schools.

The one fact not included in Ryan's letter, however, was this: He voted against the bill that included the funds for OIC. The list of grant recipients -- available at the time the bill came up for a vote -- also includes UW-Parkside and UW-Whitewater, both in Ryan's district.

The grant will fund the Upward Bound program, aiding high school students from low-income families, from families in which neither parent holds a bachelor’s degree and low-income first generation military veterans. The goal is to increase high school graduation rates and the rate at which participants enroll in and graduate from institutions of post-secondary education.

According to Claudius Adebayo, OIC's executive director, the grant is "a true story of the big catch that got away, and got caught again."

It happened like this:
-- Nov. 6, 2006: OIC submitted its grant application.
-- May 17, 2007: OIC's grant is rejected; 988 applications (asking for $322 million) were eligible, but the $257 million available could only fund 775 of them.
-- June 12, 2007: Rep. George Miller, D-CA, introduced HR 2669, the College Cost Reduction Act, to reduce higher education lender subsidies by $19 billion, while using some of the savings to provide education grants and student loans.
-- July 11, 2007: the House passed HR 2669, 273 to 149. Ryan voted against the bill, along with 148 other Republicans.
-- July 20, 2007: The Senate passed the bill, 78-18. All the nays were Republicans.
-- Sept. 27, 2007: President Bush signs it into law.

"This is great news for us at OIC and for the community," said Adebayo.

The program will provide academic instruction in mathematics, laboratory sciences, composition, literature and foreign languages. It will also support tutoring, counseling, mentoring, cultural enrichment and work study programs for participants.

UPDATE: Rep. Ryan says he voted against HR 2669 because it creates new entitlement programs that threaten to burden future generations of taxpayers with "perpetual debt."

"While the bill claims some of these entitlement programs will 'sunset,' experience has taught us that once Washington creates an entitlement it never ends. If these new entitlement programs continue, they would add another $32 billion over five years onto already-unsustainable entitlement costs," he said.

Ryan said the bill appears to do more for college graduates than assist college hopefuls, and notes that the student loan interest rate cut only lasts for one year.

"The soaring cost of higher education makes it difficult for many students and their parents to afford college today without going into significant debt. Unfortunately, this bill doesn’t get to the heart of the problem – tuition hikes. It may be well-intentioned, but it’s poor policy that will end up expanding entitlement spending and government bureaucracy. There are better ways for Congress to make college more affordable, and this bill would do more harm than good," Ryan said.

Des can be home (with you) for Christmas

Meet Des, a friendly, well-behaved Cairn Terrier/Cocker Spaniel mix.

He's about three years old, and my first thought upon meeting him was, "How could anybody give up a dog this sweet?" Simple and sad answer: his owner died. OK, I feel like a cad.

Des really is a lovely dog; nice long coat, eager to please even a photographer, by posing by the tree. He's waiting at Countryside Humane Society for someone to adopt him. If you hurry, he'll be home for Christmas.

Last week's adoptable pet, the cat Shania, was not claimed, and is on her way to the Wisconsin Humane Society in Milwaukee, which reportedly has a three-day turnaround these days. We're keeping our fingers crossed.

Feingold keeps pressure on Mukasey over CIA torture

Sen. Russ Feingold is not letting up on Michael Mukasey.

Unhappy with Mukasey's unwillingness to provide his views on the legality of CIA interrogation techniques, which he refused to do during his Senate confirmation hearings. Feingold, D-WI, today wrote the new U.S. Attorney General, pressing him to provide his views on such tactics as waterboarding.

During his confirmation hearings, Mukasey said he hadn't been briefed on the techniques. Feingold wrote him today, "Now that you have been sworn in as our nation’s Attorney General and presumably have been briefed on the program, I urge you to provide your views on its legality to Congress at the earliest possible date."

Feingold made clear his own opposition to torture in his letter: "I oppose any interrogation techniques not authorized by the Army Field Manual, as do majorities of the Senate and House intelligence Committees. I do not believe that their use is legally or morally defensible or that it makes our nation safer. It is my hope that, under your leadership, the Department of Justice will take a fresh look at the CIA's program, and that you will urge the President not to veto legislation that would end the use of so-called "alternative interrogation techniques."

Not mentioned in Feingold's letter was the developing battle over last week's revelation that the CIA destroyed some interrogation tapes. At this morning's press briefing, White House Press Secretary Dana Perino refused to answer questions about the tapes, on the advice of lawyers.

Feeling positive about Racine? Read the newspaper and call me in the morning

Mark Twain once said, "Never pick a fight with a man who buys ink by the barrel and paper by the ton." Or was it Samuel Johnson... or Oscar Wilde? No matter: whoever said it first, it's been true since shortly after Gutenberg figured out movable type (circa 1439).

But that was then, and this is now. The internet is rife with 21st century revisions of that old adage.

"Ink matters less, electrons matter more," wrote John Udell "and the playing field is closer to level." Bob Stepno collected these variants on new-media/old-media exchanges, warning of the power of "bandwidth by the barrel, pixels by the bushel, photons by the google and diskspace by the gigabyte." Finally, Kevin Craver rang in the 21st Century with the warning, "Never pick a fight with a person who writes in his pajamas."

Take this self-serving history as preamble to a discussion of the question, Do you view Racine in a positive or negative light? The Journal Times asks that question as a poll on its website -- I first noticed it Saturday -- and, surprise! the naysayers are winning.

Is their poll a result of my criticism of Mike Moore's Friday column reminding us of negatives like crime and job losses (Gee, thanks; we might have forgotten!) in response to the New York Times' favorable profile of the city's growing arts scene a week ago? Irrelevant. It is what it is.

The poll props up the stereotype the JT promulgates on 2,000 tons of newsprint annually. Saturday's paper had, by my count, 17 crime stories -- six relating to criminal charges for auto accidents and eleven about robberies, assaults, murder plots and so on. (The killing of a 16-year-old girl in a bar fight atop Sunday's front page occurred after Saturday's paper went to press.) Not all the crime stories are from the city itself, but sometimes you had to look closely to find the regional dateline. (I'm not counting two stories on the Omaha mall massacre.)

My point is: How the hell can anyone have positive feelings when bombarded with all that negativity? And so, I was not surprised with the results that came up when I clicked on the Journal Times' poll Saturday night: 174 positive (42.2%) vs. 239 negative responses (57.8%). Not even close; no need for the Supreme Court to decide this election!

Still the poll raises the all-important question of cause-and-effect. Does reading the Journal Times create a negative environment? Or is the community self-selecting, dividing itself along positive / negative axes: those with a negative view reading the newspaper for a daily dose of pessimistic proof that the community is going to the dogs; while those who walk on the sunny side of the street get their news elsewhere (or not at all). If that's the case, positive outlooks are in the majority.

It's no secret that many newspapers have adopted the advice of consultants (bolstered by newsstand sales spikes) that show circulation rising when crime stories are emphasized. Big city tabloids lived on this mantra for decades (at least until celebrity-mania replaced it.) But crime stories become a drug, one to which the readership gains an immunity over time. So it takes bigger and more gruesome headlines to maintain the buzz. (Believed unsurpassable is the NY Post's, "Headless body in topless bar," from 1983.)

But eventually all that crime news causes people to retreat into their homes, afraid to walk the streets. They forget -- the newcomers may never have known -- that this community was a finalist in the National Civic League's All-America City competition in 1994, before Main Street was revitalized: the former JC Penney building sat vacant, the entire block where the Johnson Building now stands tall was a vacant lot, mute reminder of a fire in the '70s. There was no attractive vista to the lake, no Laurel Clark fountain; just dozens of parked Postal trucks.

The city was an All-America City finalist again -- a bridesmaid but not a bride -- in 1999, before all those galleries opened on Sixth Street.

The city -- the Greater Racine area, to be precise -- finally won the award in 2003. The award cited such accomplishments as the regional sewer pact, fine arts museum, zoo and library; the Sixth Street revitalization; Racine County Youth as Resources. And that was before Monument Square's restoration, the new shops and condos at State and Main.

Granted, a city is more than its downtown, but you have to start at the core.

So which came first: Racinians overwhelmed with community-loathing, or a newspaper feeding them negative thoughts? I mean: if you really dislike the city, then why stay here? I'm not arguing for a Pollyanna Press; crime is a fact of life and we need to know about it. But must the Police Blotter be the bedrock of all our conversations, day after day?

If a majority of the population truly sees the city in a negative light, then maybe we need to do something about it.

Something more substantive than fearmongering and polling.

December 9, 2007

Beware the Shopocalpyse

Rob VanAlkemade and the Rev. Billy

Our word for the day is "Shopocalypse."

As in: "Save Christmas from the Shopocalypse: the end of mankind from consumerism, over-consumption and the fires of eternal debt!"

A new movie, What Would Jesus Buy, is hitting the big screens this holiday season. It's an unlikely Christmas film, billed as a "serious docu-comedy" about the evils of over-commercialization. It follows the Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping Gospel Choir as they go on a cross-country mission to save Christmas from, the Shopocalypse.

Why should you care, buried as you are in gift lists, stress and credit card debt? Well, for one thing, the movie has been making a splash, since opening on the independent film circuit. It comes to the Oriental in Milwaukee, for one week starting Friday, Dec. 14.

And for another, it was directed by a Racinian, Rob VanAlkemade. Well, Rob's a partial Racinian: born in Teaneck, NJ, he spent 10 years here, attended Fine Arts Elementary School for six years and Walden III High School. "My fondest, and least fond, memories are of Racine," he says. "I didn't graduate from Walden, I was a GED dropout. I did a lot of traveling and troublemaking, and finally realized I was twice as tall as anyone in my grade and took the GED and got out." Eventually, he earned an MA from the New School for Social Research in New York, where he lives now.

The movie was produced by Morgan Spurlock, of Super Size Me fame -- the guy who almost killed himself by eating mostly Big Macs for 30 days. It stars Bill Talen as the charismatic Reverend Billy, a cross between Jimmy Swaggert, Elvis and Bill Clinton.

Rev. Billy leads the Stop Shopping Gospel Choir

Reverend Billy, a crazy-as-a-fox hustler, led a 35-member Gospel Choir across the country in 2005, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, preaching against chain stores and rampant consumerism. He takes his message to Wal-Mart, Starbucks, Disneyland and the Gap, creating improvised street theater as he goes, and has been banned from most of those stores.

VanAlkemade shot 900 hours of tape during the tour -- almost getting killed in an accident along the way -- and then winnowed the footage down to 90 minutes. He won a special jury prize at Sundance last year for a shorter version of Rev. Billy's story titled Preacher With an Unknown God.

Reviews so far have been great. "It's a witty, engaging romp," said Jessica Reaves of the Chicago Tribune. Ain't It Cool News wrote, "It's "a brilliant documentary that never falls into the classic documentary traps of boring you with facts and figures." Box office receipts also have been good. "We're not making documentary history," VanAlkemade told me from Austin on Sunday, "but we had a very strong weekend. When it opened on Nov. 16, we had the third highest box office, per screen, in the country."

The film began in 2004, when VanAlkemade was working on a short political documentary in New York, and would run into Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. "They were hard at work that summer conducting First Amendment Flash Mobs, singing and preaching." A year later, VanAlkemade and Spurlock put together the tour that would become the movie.

Two vintage buses were carrying choir and crew across Indiana when disaster struck: One of the buses was hit by a fully loaded semi, totaling both vehicles and sending 13 of the film crew to the hospital, three of them -- including VanAlkemade -- by helicopter into intensive care. "I was given a karate chop by an oak table, breaking three ribs and getting a cut liver. I was out for a week. But the first Christmas miracle of our journey turned out to be that we’d all soon recover, including the truck driver," he said. A new bus was found, and the tour resumed.

"We were all inspired by the idea of spreading the good gospel to the skeptical," VanAlkemade says. "I’m sure that many who may not be entirely receptive to performance activism in their everyday lives can easily connect with some of our themes: The story behind the product on the shelf matters; our own time is more valuable than any object; the holiday season is an opportunity to reflect on what means the most to us, and to act accordingly.

"Our intention is to start a conversation," VanAlkemade said. "But it’s also a holiday film, so we do need to enjoy ourselves even as we’re facing the end of the world from shopping."

So far, the film is being shown in a handful of cities, including New York, Austin, Dallas and Seattle, ramping up to 50 cities by the middle of the month. "It's kind of a brutal season" for independent filmmakers, VanAlkemade said, "but we're holding our own and glad to be able to launch this Christmas."

Although this is VanAlkemade's first full-length feature film, he has numerous credits, including three years as a videographer for Steven Spielberg's Visual History Foundation, and films about autistic children and schools, Kosovar refugee teens, Tibetan monks in India, Black Panthers in Cuba, UN weapons inspections in Iraq, Special Forces imprisoned in Afghanistan, and an activist church with a rap sheet for exorcising cash registers.

High-speed rail from Madison to Milwaukee? 'It's ba-aack.' (Maybe)

While Racine, Kenosha and Milwaukee struggle with a way to fund the proposed KRM rail link between Chicago and Milwaukee, another passenger rail effort may rise Phoenix-like from decade-old ashes:
Milwaukee to Madison.
The hopes were spurred by an AP story in the Green Bay Press Gazette on Saturday, which began:

"Experts convened by a federal transportation policy commission are recommending a $357.2 billion investment - or $8.1 billion a year - to significantly expand intercity passenger rail service by 2050.

"The recommendations were released Thursday by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission's passenger rail working group."

The story went on to quote Frank Busalacchi, Wisconsin's secretary of transportation and the commissioner who convened the working group, saying the ideas, including Milwaukee to Madison rail, have been adopted by the commission and are expected be part of its final report to Congress. But a spokesman for Transportation Secretary Mary Peters (who apparently didn't get the memo) said the commission has not officially endorsed the plan.

"The majority of the public are going to continue to use the automobile," Busalacchi told The Associated Press. "But if we make it reliable, clean and convenient, people will take the train."

The report calls for federal matching funds to help states establish rail corridors. The first phase, by 2015, calls for the addition of new service that's already in the pipeline ... including parts of a high-speed rail corridor in California and a rail link from Milwaukee to Madison. The estimated cost of the first phase is $66.3 billion, the story said.

A poster to the Madison listserv SASYNA-Discussion, Dan Melton, chairman of the Schenk-Atwood-Starkweather-Yahara Neighborhood Association, wrote:

"WISDOT Sec. Busalacchi is apparently pushing for it in D.C. You may recall, when Sue Bauman was mayor, we had excruciating arguments, back and forth, about whether a high-speed train from Milwaukee (north of the Interstate) (through Oconomowoc, Watertown, Sun Prairie) should go downtown to the Kohl Center, or to the Airport -- before heading back to Milwaukee. We even had detailed discussions with Mayor Bauman's staff over what kind of fencing would go along our RR right-of-way (assuming it was headed Downtown, through our neighborhood). Then, suddenly, ... nothing. Not a word about high-speed rail. Now, ...the idea's ba-aack. (Sort of) Stay tuned."

(Sue Bauman, Madison's first woman mayor, was elected in 1997, by a 55-vote majority.)