“I like Wisconsin!” exclaims one of the band members in the movie That Thing You Do, as they’re being mobbed by teenage girls after playing at the state fair. I like Wisconsin too, but anymore that’s getting harder to do.
Yesterday, after a fair bit of political drama – the Democratic governor at the last minute finally ordering a delay; the state supreme court overruling him; many observers and pundits nationwide and even worldwide standing by aghast – Wisconsin went ahead and held its presidential primary. From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:
Across the state, in schools, churches and town halls, poll workers risked their health to make sure democracy worked. Members of the National Guard also pitched in.
In Milwaukee, where only five polling sites were open, the workers donned face masks and rubber gloves, handed out black pens to voters, wiped surfaces clean and kept the lines moving as best they could even as the state remained under a safer-at-home order.
Hand sanitizer was a must.
And votes won’t be counted until Monday, another twist in the latest chapter in this only-in-Wisconsin political story.
A woman named Jennifer Taff stood in line to vote holding a cardboard sign reading “THIS IS RIDICULOUS” and told the paper: “I’m disgusted. I requested an absentee ballot almost three weeks ago and never got it. I have a father dying from lung disease and I have to risk my life and his just to exercise my right to vote.”
From yesterday’s Guardian live feed:
Most of the voting delays in Wisconsin appear to be centralized in Milwaukee, where only five polling places are open for today’s primary. … The lack of polling locations in Milwaukee is particularly disconcerting because the city is majority minority, while the state as a whole is 85% white.
David Bowen, who is black and represents Milwaukee County in the Wisconsin state legislature, and who recently recovered from Covid-19 (his 69-year-old mentor, Lenord Wells, did not), brings the point home in today’s Guardian:
In the past few weeks, it has become clear that Milwaukee’s black community will be uniquely affected by the coronavirus. Wisconsin’s governor, Tony Evers, characterized the explosion of Covid-19 in the state’s communities of color as “a crisis within a crisis.”
For Milwaukee’s black residents, he’s exactly right. The threat of the coronavirus is only compounded by a legacy of racial disparities that makes the city one of the worst places to be black in America.
It really is true that you can’t go home again. I know, I’ve tried. Growing up I felt at home in Wisconsin, but with a background buzz of dislocation or alienation whose source I could never really identify until later in life, when wider experience gave me wider perspective. My parents were high school sweethearts in Dallas – this June they’ll mark their 61st wedding anniversary – and for them Oconomowoc, Wisconsin was a fine enough place to establish their careers and raise their two sons, but it never became home.
My dad was the first in his white working-class family to attend college. He ended up with not one but three master’s degrees in liberal arts subjects, and haunted by a lifelong sense of being out of place. Texas annoyed and disgusted him, so he left. At the prestigious Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, where he taught history in the late sixties, he felt – at least in retrospect – that he would never belong. Everybody there was very gracious and polite, he told me, but “We were country cousins.” So he applied for and got the job as head of the history department at the private University School Milwaukee. Which he came to realize, without real regret, was maybe not a great career move: “You don’t ask to be traded from a pennant winner.” Then he went to seminary at Nashotah House to become an Episcopal priest, and Nashotah is right near Oconomowoc, so I ended up growing up in Oconomowoc.
The point of the preceding paragraph is that my personal Wisconsonianism is contingent and accidental and partial. I now understand that contingency and accident govern everyone’s life; mine isn’t special in that sense. But Oconomowoc is a special sort of town. Part of the whole point of it is that it’s not Milwaukee. The thirty miles’ distance defines a pointed distinction. Oconomowoc, with its several idyllic lakes, started out as a resort town for cigar-chomping railroad moguls from Chicago and beer barons from Milwaukee, and it retains a whiff of that even today. After seminary my father became the vicar of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church in Dousman, seven miles south down Highway 67 across I-94. His summing-up of our years in Oconomowoc is pithy: “In an affluent community, clergy are the help.” I certainly get that, though I did also feel socioculturally deprived, because other kids’ dads took them deer hunting and ice fishing up north, and our family didn’t even eat bratwurst at home.
Anyway, the thing about Oconomowoc is that it epitomizes Waukesha County, which has become sort of a famous county in state and even national politics. When I drove around America in 2012 to write my book Home Free, I made a beeline for Waukesha County, because I wanted to understand what the hell was going on in Wisconsin in the aftermath of the astounding occupation of the state capitol building and square in Madison, in sub-freezing weather in February and March 2011, by some 80,000 ordinary Wisconsinites in defiance of the power-grabbing governor, Scott Walker. I had been in serene, placid Islamabad when I became aware of what was going down in Madison, which was kind of jarring to my sense of how the world works. Walker and his Republican allies ended up winning that battle, and a lot of things have followed from that.
During my 2012 visit I was invited to speak to the Waukesha Rotary Club, where I met Cathy Waller, executive director of the Republican Party of Waukesha County, and I jumped at the opportunity to interview her at her office in Waukesha. She confirmed proudly that Waukesha County was “the number one Republican county in the state of Wisconsin.” I asked her about the capitol occupation. “You’re in Madison, and they’re just so aggressively verbal there,” she said. “I think that’s our biggest problem: We come from two different worlds.” Madison, where I went to college, is all of one hour’s drive west of Oconomowoc.
I asked Cathy if it was possible for people like her to find common ground with Madison liberals.
“I’m going to be honest: I don’t know if we can,” she replied. “We’re not going to get anywhere.”
I see that on page 29 of Home Free I wrote: “Waukesha County had made the news for allegations of funny business in the counting of votes, as if Wisconsin were some kind of Third World country like Florida.” At the time, it seemed like a funny throwaway line.
I also interviewed Elisa Miller, over lunch at a Mexican restaurant in Menomonee Falls, which is also in Waukesha County. Elisa told me how Wisconsin’s toxic public atmosphere had affected her directly, as both a Democratic activist and a teacher. Teachers, and issues affecting teachers, had been at the forefront of the capitol occupation. “Hating teachers,” she said to me. “Not just thinking a few are bad.”
I’ve never heard such horrible things. I’ve never seen such hatred. Every week I get harassed in my car. People will honk their horns and go, “Fuck you.” And my stickers are Obama ’08, [then-Milwaukee mayor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate] Tom Barrett, [Democratic senator] Russ Feingold, and Jimi Hendrix: “When the power of love overcomes the love of power, the world will know peace.” And I literally get harassed. One guy stuck his head out and said, “Fuck you! Scott Walker!” Another guy pulled up and said, “Are you okay?” And I’m thinking it’s my gas cap or something. And I said, “Yeah, I’m okay.” And he goes, “Well, I don’t think you’re okay. I think you’re the reason the country’s going down the hole,” and whatever. I’m afraid. I actually am afraid of the world we live in. We’re at a pivotal moment. Whatever road we choose sets us up for decades.
My next stop on that trip around America in the fall of 2012 was Detroit, where I met Jeff Nelson, a white Methodist pastor whose racially mixed church was in Redford Township, just across Telegraph Road from northwest Detroit. I told Jeff that I had grown up in Wisconsin, and that I had just come from there.
“Man, that state’s got a story right now,” he remarked. “What a story that state has been. My brother’s a public school teacher in Rhinelander. Wisconsin used to be known as the nice state. Whenever you had a character in a movie who was a naïve rube, he was always from Wisconsin.”
Today’s Seattle Times includes a column by Larry Stone headlined “Idea to end MLB coronavirus shutdown by playing in Arizona is wishful thinking, and dangerous”:
The notion that Major League Baseball could be back as soon as May – that’s next month, folks – is enough to cause a spontaneous flurry of group hugs and high-fives.
If we were still allowed to do such things, that is.
But this possible plan floated by MLB – which likes to send out more trial balloons than the United States Weather Service – is rife with holes, wishful thinking, dangerous assumptions and unsolvable quandaries.
Beyond that, is it really wise to be putting so aggressive a timeline on baseball’s return at a time when the full scope of coronavirus’ devastation is still being felt?
As much as we all covet the return of live sports in general, public health is still paramount, and I have a hard time wrapping my brain around how this advances that cause. COVID-19 is not an illness that adheres to the calendar. We’ve already learned in painful fashion, as the reopening of various elements of society keep getting pushed back. To think we can control the timeline borders on recklessness.