I heard someone tell the tale this week of how George Smathers ran his campaign against U.S. Sen. Claude Pepper in Florida in 1950.
“Do you know that Claude Pepper is known all over Washington as a shameless extrovert?” Time magazine quoted Smathers as saying during the race. “Not only that, but this man is reliably reported to practice nepotism with his sister-in-law and he has a sister who was once a thespian in wicked New York. Worst of all, it is an established fact that Mr. Pepper, before his marriage, habitually practiced celibacy.”
Smathers, of course, won.
The story, in slightly truncated form, was recounted Wednesday by Ralph Adam Fine, one of the judges presiding over the disciplinary case filed against Supreme Court Justice Michael Gableman. Fine was trying to elicit some reaction from lawyers on what exactly can be considered a falsity during a campaign, what is merely misleading and what is simply a truth that people misinterpret.
What Fine elicited from me, however, was a different question: Elections are dicey enough, even when they’re necessary. Why, in this state, do we insist on holding them when they are not? Why, just as an example, does Wisconsin insist on holding elections for positions like state treasurer?
Our state treasurer right now is Dawn Marie Sass, and her office is in utter disarray. There is a big backlog of work and lots of vacancies and, in the middle of all of it, she recently flew off to a fancy resort where she could cavort with other state treasurers and talk about whatever state treasurers talk about: stuff, I guess, like which cruise to take. Sass, in addition, really has been accused of practicing nepotism with her niece.
In addition to allowing other relatives to work jobs at her office’s State Fair booth, she brought her niece on board over the summer to, in part, travel around the state.
I called the National Association of State Treasurers and found out many treasurers are not like ours. Many are appointed. Only 33, including ours, are elected by voters. We should make it 32.
Our treasurer, after all, is the equivalent of a mid-level bureaucrat. She basically runs the unclaimed property program and administers the state’s college savings program. If we’re going to insist on continuing to elect her, we really ought to be fair and allow, say, the clerks in the Department of Revenue to start waging campaigns as well.
Sass was an odd choice, at best, for treasurer. A part-time clerk at a Boston Store and a custody placement specialist at Milwaukee County’s juvenile detention center, she had little if any relevant experience for the job when she was elected by voters who weren’t paying attention in 2006. Basically, she won because she was a Democrat and the incumbent, Jack Voight, was not.
Asking millions of people to pick up their dictionaries and weigh in on a race for U.S. Senate is, of course, a necessity. There are good arguments on both sides of whether state Supreme Court justices should be elected or appointed. Making the position of state treasurer an appointed one, on the other hand, is a no-brainer. There are no real policy issues at stake, just questions of competence.
That, to borrow Smathers’ words, is an established fact.
-September 17, 2009