Sessions on politics and character wrap-up a big year for policy programs

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A central goal of the public policy initiative at Marquette University Law School has been to provide and encourage serious, level-headed, and provocative consideration of major issues. As we come to the end of 2012, it doesn’t seem presumptuous to say that this has been a very successful year in pursuing that goal.

The Marquette Law School Poll provided insightful, in-depth, and accurate readings on public opinion in Wisconsin throughout a historic year of election after election. The candidates for governor and senator held debates in Eckstein Hall that were televised live across Wisconsin. “On the Issues with Mike Gousha” offered a rich series of programs, free and open to the public, in which newsmakers and consequential figures shared their thoughts. Academic conferences, major lectures, conferences on mental health law and Milwaukee’s future in the Chicago “megacity,” the annual Restorative Justice Initiative conference on civility in public discussion, and two education policy events were all components of a year of thoughtful forays into major issues.

Let us end the year with some highlights of the last two major public policy events of 2012 which we have not reported on this blog previously:

Wisconsin 2012: The voters have spoken. What did they tell us?

December 6, the Appellate Courtroom, Eckstein Hall

To wrap-up an epic year in Wisconsin politics, an array of experts gathered to talk about what happened, with Mike Gousha, the Law School’s distinguished fellow in law and public policy, moderating.

Charles Franklin, visiting professor of law and public policy and director of the Marquette University Law School Poll, presented a county by county analysis showing dramatic differences in the voting in the June recall election for governor and the November presidential race. The map was predominantly red in June, strengthening arguments that Wisconsin was becoming a more Republican state. But in November, the map was much bluer, and many deep-red counties had turned light red. “That’s just stunning in five months to see that much difference,” Franklin said. The biggest shifts between the two elections came in counties that voted Republican each time, but with much smaller margins for presidential candidate Mitt Romney than for Gov. Scott Walker. The smaller margins amounted to a gain for President Barack Obama of 158,000 votes, Franklin said. In other words, Obama’s stronger performance in Republican areas, compared to the showing of Democrat Tom Barrett in the governor’s race, was a central aspect of Obama’s victory in Wisconsin. In counties that voted Democratic both times, Obama ran up a margin that was 135,000 votes larger than Barrett had.

Amber Wichowsky, assistant professor of political science, Marquette University, looked at the significant number of people – about 10% of all voters – who supported Walker and Obama, despite the strong ideological contrasts between the two. Analysis of Marquette Law School poll results suggests these voters didn’t match some of the presumptions about them – compared to voters as a whole, they weren’t particularly younger, less educated, or more likely to answer issues questions by saying that they didn’t have opinions or know enough to answer. Wichowsky said that while the state is sharply divided politically overall, there are specific issues, such as whether to cut education spending, where Democratic views are in the majority and others, such as preferring lower taxes over more public services, where Republican views are in the majority. That means the state is more heterogeneous in its views than some might think, making it more plausible that some people would view Obama and Walker simultaneously as their choices. An inclination to support incumbents may also have been a factor, she said. Whatever the reasons, Walker and Obama, despite their differing politics, each rolled up Wisconsin victories by margins of seven percentage points.

Ken Goldstein, president of Kantar Media’s Campaign Media Analysis Group, said the Romney media strategy in Wisconsin and nationwide raised a lot of questions. Goldstein said that until well into the election season, the national Obama campaign had 80 people working on analyzing where to advertise and making ad buys while the Romney team had one. That may be one factor in some major missteps by the Romney campaign. One anecdote: People watching football games tend to be good audiences for Republicans, Goldstein said, and a Packers-Bears game is sure to draw a huge audience in Wisconsin. But when the two teams met on Sept. 13, Obama advertised strongly while Romney ran no ads. “The Obama campaign did a lot better job of getting the message right,” Goldstein said. “They defined Romney. Romney didn’t define himself.”

Craig Gilbert, national political reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, said it was questionable after the Obama victory whether Wisconsin could still be viewed as a presidential battleground state. On the other hand, the recall election gave Walker a large political boost, including a national donor base “that governors can only dream of,” Gilbert said.

Commenting on the US Senate race in which Rep. Tammy Baldwin beat former Gov. Tommy Thompson, Jeff Mayers, founder and president of WisPolitics.com, said Thompson was not able to pick up politically where he left off in 2000, after 14 years as governor. “He wasn’t a happy warrior, he was a grouchy warrior,” Mayers said. Thompson’s campaign was hurt by the heated four-way Republican primary and by the Thompson’s inability to get across a strong message about why he should be elected to the Senate.

Keith Gilkes, campaign manager for both Walker and Thompson, and John Kraus, communications director for the Baldwin campaign and a veteran of many Democratic campaigns, presented thoughts particularly on what swung the race for Baldwin. Gilkes said the Thompson campaign was in a tough spot after the August Republican primary, including that it did not have enough money to go on the air quickly with advertising while the Baldwin campaign was running a large volume of commercials. Overall, though, Gilkes said, “the presidential ballot drives the US Senate ballot.” Nationwide, only one Republican won a Senate race in a state that Obama carried.

Moderator Mike Gousha asked Kraus about how the Baldwin campaign chose the successful advertising theme that Thompson was “not on our side anymore.” Kraus said the campaign wanted to win over people who liked Thompson as governor. He compared dealing with Thompson’s history to dealing with quarterback Brett Favre’s history. People might remember Favre for taking the Packers to the Super Bowl twice. But if you wanted to undermine those memories, you might say to them, remember when he quit and played for the Jets? And, even more, when he went to play for the Vikings? “You may have a Brett Favre jersey, it’s hanging in your closet,” Kraus said. “It’s not a bad thing. But do you really want to put it on and wear it?”

Gousha concluded the session by commenting, “Isn’t this a nice way to end it? You have two guys who probably don’t agree on a lot politically but you can bring them together, sit down, have an honest discussion about decisions that were made.”

It’s the kind of conversation that the Law School promoted throughout the momentous political year.

Video of the session may be watched by clicking here.

 On the Issues with Paul Tough

Nov. 29, 2012, the Appellate Courtroom, Eckstein Hall

In a new, best-selling book, journalist Paul Tough describes research and programs for children across the country that point toward concluding that building up specific character traits of children may be as important to their long-term success as building up their academic skills.

Tough drew an overflow audience when he talked with Gousha about the book, How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, and what its findings suggest for parents, teachers, and those who work in youth programs.

The traits he singled out as serving children well include persistence, resilience, optimism, the ability to focus on a task, and what he called grit. Successful children are able to respond to adversity, challenge, and failure by finding ways to do things better and succeed, he said.

Tough said extreme stress, especially in early years, can be very damaging to children, and that shows up strongest in those growing up in tumultuous circumstances and poverty. But even with those children, there are programs with demonstrable success in in developing in kids the traits that can lead to succeeding in college and beyond.

Tough said he did not know if those traits were more important than reading or math, but “what is clearly true is that they are underemphasized in our education system and I think in our homes as well.” The optimistic side of his book, he said, is the knowledge that positive impacts on character are possible, especially if steps can be taken to improve things early in a child’s life by reducing stress factors. Strong, healthy relationships with a parent or other adult can have a big impact.

In his book, Tough describes character development programs at a school in New York with a high-poverty student body and at Riverdale Country School, a prestigious private school where students have been, in large part, protected from failures, even ones that might be good developmental experiences for them.

Tough said, “Right now, I feel like we have this adversity gap in this country where we have some kids who are growing up, especially kids who are growing up in poverty, who simply have way too much adversity in their lives and we know that that has a terrible impact on them and what we need to do is to find ways to protect them from that adversity. And then we have other kids, like those kids at Riverdale, who simply don’t have enough adversity in their lives and what they need is some more and to be protected from what adversity there is in their lives a little bit less.” But, he said, it’s useful to think of the challenges in both cases as part of one conversation in which people are trying to get kids the supports they need to get to the same kinds of destinations.

During a panel discussion following Tough’s talk, Mary Lou Young, CEO and president of the Greater Milwaukee United Way, said there are many good efforts in Milwaukee that build up the character of children. But, she cautioned, “where we have some work to do is in our own behavior as adults. Children emulate what they see and I think there is some erosion in our character and how we treat each other.” That goes for parents as well as adults who work with children, and it is an issue for all sectors of the city.

Gabrielle Gray, who took part in the Stein Scholars Program at the Boys and Girls Clubs of Milwaukee when she was in high school and college, said she had a home environment where education was stressed and where she had a lot of support. She is now a graduate student at Marquette. “Any student can be changed,” she said. “There is not one student who does not have hope.”

Colin Jacobs is principal of Rawson Elementary School in South Milwaukee, which has a strong character education program. Talking about schools in general, he said, “When kids are needing reading help, we help them read. When they need help in math, we give them practice in math. When they need help in being school-ready, oftentimes we punish them. That’s a school culture we need to change.”

Andre Goode, who leads parent-involvement programs at COA Youth and Family Centers, said, “It’s really about knowledge and information. The parents don’t understand how important it is to be involved in their child’s education every single day.” But, he said, efforts to work with parents to improve the quality of their involvement with their children have positive impacts.

Video of the session may be watchedd by clicking here.

 

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