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Members and contacts of LeaderEthics receive a monthly copy of The Ethics Report. Each edition will include summaries of research as well as articles about ethical leadership in practice...frequently awarding a "green light" or "red flag" rating. Each month, we include a featured article from the most recent edition of The Ethics Report.

LeaderEthics Position

LeaderEthics articles are written by the Executive Director and reviewed by the Judges Panel (three former judges) prior to publication in The Ethics Report. Periodically, guest articles appear. The articles regularly award a green light or red flag. The green light is in recognition of performance that is consistent with the four principles of ethical leadership...to be:

  • truthful,
  • transparent with public information,
  • unifiers rather than dividers, and 
  • willing to represent the collective interests of their entire constituency. 
The red flag indicates actions which are counter to the four principles. Let us know if you agree or disagree with our assessments by contacting me. 

Lee Rasch, Executive Director. Email: Lee@leaderethics.us.

Featured Article

Peaceful Resistence to Conflict

February 2024

Recently, I was having a conversation with a colleague about the need for more civics education in schools. The evidence is clear. According to the Annenberg Public Policy Center, civic knowledge is alarmingly low, with a bare majority of Americans (56 percent) able to identify the three branches of government. Nearly 10 percent are unable to identify any. Simultaneously, confidence in our democratic institutions, notably Congress, the Supreme Court and the Presidency has dropped. Such levels of civic ignorance and distrust fuel political polarization. My colleague said Educating the next generations makes sense. But we are really divided politically, and many people simply dont want to talk with the other side.” She added.  Do you really see any change?”

On the same day, I was writing a report on the completion of a Rotary Global Grant project, Hearts to Schools Revisited. The project involved raising funds to refurbish three dilapidated primary schools in rural northwest Cameroon. These schools were in incredibly poor condition, with gaping holes in the roofs, broken windows, dirt floors and very limited educational materials. Not surprisingly, student and teacher morale was low, attendance was poor and educational achievement was substandard. On top of this, a sectarian conflict had erupted in this area of Cameroon and conditions at these three schools were dire.

Eight Rotary clubs, from four different states, had been approached about taking on this project. The Rotary Club of La Crosse was asked to serve as the lead club. Before agreeing to take the lead role, we wanted to know if, given the conflict, it was viable (even safe) to rebuild these three schools.  We reached out to the bishop who served in this region of Cameroon, and the Divisional Governor, for their advice. They both responded that they hoped we would proceed.  The need was great, and, in the words of the bishop, it would be a  form of peaceful resistance to the conflict”.  So, the project moved forward.

In early 2021, $122,000 was raised. Over the next nine months, each of the schools were rebuilt with new roofs, repaired walls and windows, concrete floors, and new classroom furniture. A library was developed in each school, stocked by books from the organization, Books for Africa. The parent/teacher organizations participated in an orientation workshop to enhance the emphasis on reading. A reading competition was held.

However, there were challenges. As stated in the final report to Rotary International, the sectarian conflict in Northwest Cameroon contributed to a hazardous work environment during construction. There were a number of work stoppages due to gun shots in the surrounding area. In addition, the separatists enforced something the locals call "ghost town"...where one day a week, people were not permitted to leave their homes without risk.  Essentially, this is a community lockdown to put pressure on the government. At one point, Project Lead from the Kumbo Rotary Club, Chin Idirisu, was detained for ransom. Project staff and contractors also experienced problems with separatists. The challenges were greatest in the two schools (Nseh and Dzeng) located in the Northwest Region of Cameroon...the area where the separatist activity is greatest. Despite these significant challenges, the work was completed. All three schools are now open and operating, and a source of community pride.

But the most significant outcome goes beyond improved buildings. The combined enrollment for the three schools increased from 745 students in 2021 to 1142 in 2023. Cameroon requires all students to take a national exam during the sixth grade which determines whether students are ready to progress to the next educational level.  In 2021, only 45% of the students successfully completed the national exam. In 2023, that increased to 85%! In other words, prior to the Hearts to Schools Revisited project, less than half of the sixth-grade students were able to complete the national exam. Those that didnt complete, with formal education abruptly ended, are prime recruitment targets for dissident activity. So, for these three communities in Cameroon, education now means hope for a better future.

This project serves as both a reminder and a lesson for us. It is important to keep our focus on community interest, even in the face of major conflict. We likely face real issues in our home community…issues that need our attention but are caught up in the political conflict. Ironically, increased civics education may be one of them and it may actually help reduce incivility. Still, the negative dynamics of the political divide are real and its easy to become disillusioned. The tendency in the larger political conflict is gridlock. Local issues can get lost. Can focusing on community needs bring people together on larger conflicts? Maybe, maybe not. But we can still make progress in benefiting local constituents. This is one of the reasons LeaderEthics emphasizes the principle of representing the interests of all constituents. In the political fray, we can readily overlook important things we can do. People deserve our best effort. To use the words of the bishop, our community actions can be a "form of peaceful resistance to conflict”.

Lee Rasch

The Challenge of Ethical Leadership in 2024

January 2024

Ethical leaders are: - truthful - transparent with public information - a unifier rather than a divider - committed to represent their entire constituency. 

LeaderEthics- adopted in 2018

It is a tough time to talk about politics without seemingly stepping on someone’s toes, be it at family gatherings, in a workplace setting or on social media. Many choose to avoid political topics altogether. Of course, political conflicts in our country are not new. We have been resilient during past challenging times, despite bad actors who sought to exploit conflict for personal and/or political gain. An important part of this resilience is the determination to take action to address, rather than simply accept, our concerns. 

The commitment of LeaderEthics is to promote ethical leadership among elected officials. We believe this is an important place to start in addressing the political divisiveness of today. At the beginning of this article are the four key principles associated with ethical leadership in public office. These are the principles that have guided the work of LeaderEthics over the past six years. To be certain, these principles are a subset of a larger number of ethical principles that can serve as a guide for leaders. In our analysis, truthfulness, transparency and functioning as a unifier are consistently included as important principles for effective leadership, regardless of the setting. We believe they serve as an important guide in personal decision-making for elected leaders as well. 

Furthermore, the LeaderEthics organization believes promoting the fourth principle…being committed to represent their entire constituency…is vitally important. In a political environment, it serves as a counterbalance to the tremendous pressure political parties can place on elected leaders. At times, such pressure can place party loyalty above the interests of the nation, the state or the community being served. For example, in a study by  Pew Research, more than 90% of Democrat and Republican respondents agree that honesty is an important ethical principle for the President of the United States. However, the parties differ significantly regarding other principles, such as civility, compassion, and serving as a role model. The differences fall along political lines and lead to dramatic differences in the policy positions off the two major parties. In other words, even though members of both parties place a high value on honesty, citizens are likely willing to overlook this if they believe their party is likely to gain from the President’s positions. Elected leaders who “play to their base” certainly know this. These tradeoffs are one reason it is hard to be an ethical leader in a period of hyper-partisanship.

There are also indications that the election cycle in 2024 will ratchet up the hyper-partisan dynamics even further…particularly in the race for President of the United States.  As reported in the New York Times, six states: Nevada, Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, are considered the key swing states in terms of electoral college votes. Polls show they are, including Wisconsin, on target for a very close election. An October 2023 Emerson College Polling survey in Wisconsin finds former President Donald Trump and President Biden neck and neck in a potential 2024 matchup: 42% supporting Trump and 40% supporting Biden. Eleven percent of the respondents support someone else and 8% are undecided. Spencer Kimball, Executive Director of Emerson College Polling, said that the survey also indicated that at this time, “independent voters in Wisconsin are somewhat evenly split: 33% support Biden and 31% support Trump, and 36% are undecided or plan on voting for someone else.” The Biden campaign is reported to be in deep concern over his low polling numbers. According to Gallup, Biden ends 2023 with an approval rating of 39%. Of course, the large numbers of respondents who are undecided or support someone other than Biden or Trump speaks volumes.

Another significant factor in the 2024 Presidential election cycle are the four criminal cases for Donald Trump. As reported in Reuters, It is possible the Donald Trump believes his best options to beat back criminal charges is to become re-elected as President. As the media and the political parties work through the primary election cycle leading up to the respective conventions this summer, the court cases loom as a dark cloud over the process. This certainly sets the stage for what could be a very tense, high stakes election contest in November 2024.

What does this mean for promoting ethical leadership?

With a litte more than nine months remaining in the elections cycle, it appears that the public focus is on the race rather than the issues surrounding Biden and Trump. The approval ratings for both have been low and stable over the past year, even though the surrounding conditions have been changing. An improving economy has not had any impact in improving Biden’s ratings. Likewise, the criminal indictments appear to have solidified support for Trump, rather than hurt him. Many Wisconsin citizens (perhaps four in five) are already “locked in” their views regarding the top two presidential candidates. 

These dynamics could certainly be challenging for the LeaderEthics message when citing a green light or a red flag for practices by either of the two top candidates. Many people have strong feelings for or against, either or both individuals. Some may feel we are showing bias…. even though all articles are reviewed by a panel of judges prior to publication. The dynamics of today are even more reason to continue to cite green light and red flag practices. LeaderEthics is not perfect. Yet we believe speaking out is the only way we can heighten public awareness about the importance of ethical leadership as a cornerstone for the American democracy. Furthermore, we feel we should take the longer view and believe in the resilience that has enabled our nation to persist during challenging times, much as we have done in the past. Of course, resilience does not come from standing silently on the sidelines. Finally, once this election is past, the work in promoting ethical leadership must continue for the years ahead. Ethical leadership: If we don’t expect more, we will accept less.

Things to look forward to…and some not so much

December 2023

As we approach 2024, our nation appears to be facing one of the most tumultuous years in decades. 2024 could be described as the year of unpredictable unknowns. Against that backdrop, here are some thoughts on things we look forward to in 2024…and some things, not. It might seem presumptuous to try to paint a picture of what lies beyond the horizon. There are so many complex issues and seemingly countless moving parts that could alter the course. That being said, here goes.

On the upside, the New York Times reported that the Federal Reserve has offered an inkling that it would reduce interest rates up to three times in 2024. The New York Stock Exchange responded with across the board increases in the stock indexes. The Dow Jones Industrial Average recorded an all-time high of 37,248. Borrowing costs for 30-year fixed-rate mortgages also dropped below 7 percent this for the first time in four months. The announcement is good news for homebuyers and consumers in general. The timing on this “unofficial” announcement is interesting. The rate of inflation has been falling the last two years, so an interest rate reduction seems to be a reasonable action. However, in recent years the Federal Reserve has been notoriously tight-lipped about any future changes in interest rates. This inkling is counter to that practice. And 2024 is an election year.

Final Five Voting in Wisconsin (SB 528) is moving forward following a lengthy and informative legislative hearing in the state senate. Given that this is an election year, some believe SB 528 is a long shot in 2024. However, the legislation has the backing of a solid bipartisan list of co-sponsors. And, as reported by ABC News, there is growing active support from citizens statewide, including veterans. The focused efforts of the organization, Veterans for All Voters, is continuing to build momentum. SB 528 may come up for a vote in 2024.

The presidential election will surely hold some twists and turns. There are growing signs that Americans (Republicans included) are growing tired of the chaos surrounding Donald Trumps candidacy. Other candidates such as Nikki Haley are beginning to speak out, as referenced in The Hill. Trumps 2024 calendar is filling up with court appointments tied to his numerous federal and state indictments. But despite these serious charges, polling indicates his sizable lead remains firm entering the Republican primary season. As it currently stands, the federal court case on interfering with the outcome of the 2020 election is scheduled to start March 4th. Meanwhile, it is projected that Donald Trump will have secured the Republican nomination by March 19th. Let that sink in. The run up to the 2024 presidential election could look more like a courtroom drama than a political campaign.

Speaking of the 2024 election, there is growing concern over the potential for violence. Presidential election extremism and the threat of violence is trending upward. According to an October 2023 national survey by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in partnership with the Brookings Institution, nearly a quarter of Americans (23%) reported that "because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country." This is up from 15% in 2021.

Threats of violence against federal public officials are also on the rise. A recent U Mass Amhurst poll conducted for the U.S. Association of Former Members of Congress showed that 84% of former members surveyed are concerned about the possibility of violence related to the presidential election. Nearly half of the almost 300 respondents in the poll said they or their families received threats “at least somewhat frequently” while they were in office. Women and lawmakers of color reported even higher numbers, with 69% saying theyd experienced threats “at least somewhat frequently”.

The last issue on our list involves the outcomes of the 2024 elections. There is little doubt that this is an important election year…that the future of the democratic republic may be on the line. We are not going to predict the outcomes. There are simply too many variables and too many unknowns. Despite all the challenges, many Americans are actively working to counter disinformation, hatred, and threats of violence to contribute to a stronger, more resilient democracy. According to the GuideStar Directory, there are hundreds of organizations actively working to defend democratic principles, using many differing approaches. LeaderEthics is proud to be included in this effort. As our nation approaches the 250-year anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we expect the pride in our country and the U.S. Constitution to show through. With hopeful optimism we are predicting that our efforts in 2024 will be meaningful.

Final Five Voting in Wisconsin...The Time Is Now

November 2023

This article is an update of the story published in the October 2023 issue of The Ethics Report.

The hyper-partisan divide in the U.S. House of Representatives has resulted in some strangely distorted dynamics which have impacted Wisconsin in a big way. As reported in The Hill, only 10 percent of the House races in the 2022 midterm elections were competitive, noting that both Democrats and Republicans had a high number of “safe districts.” Gerrymandering (though not the only cause) is a considerable variable. What follows is that despite low voter turnout, the partisan primary process takes on an exaggerated level of importance in determining who gets elected to Congress. In addition, primary voters who tend to be affiliated with one party, are more mistrustful of the other political party. Thus, they are more likely to vote to remove an incumbent who dares to support bipartisan measures. So how is this a problem? Here are a few examples.

The concerns about our current partisan primary process go deeper than simply selecting the favored party candidate. In non-competitive districts, it negatively influences the behavior of legislators. For example, a prominent Wisconsin Republican legislator was recently asked how many of the 132 state legislators still believe the 2020 election results were wrong. The response given…” about five”. Nonetheless, very few legislators are willing to speak up on the issue, fearing that in a high-stakes election year, they will be subjected to a primary election opponent. In other words, they might be primaried”. Their resulting silence leads many voters to surmise that there must be truth in the belief the 2020 election was stolen. Ultimately, this dynamic adds to the breakdown in trust by voters.

The current primary process also leads to increased campaign spending on primary elections, since in most districts, that’s where the action is. As reported in fivethirtyeight.com, Democrats contributed heavily in Republican primary elections by spending money to boost potentially weaker GOP contenders (primarily 2020 election deniers) in the hopes of improving Democrats’ chances in the general election. Nationally, Democratic-aligned groups spent money in more than a dozen Republican primaries, and six of their preferred candidates won congressional or gubernatorial primaries leading to Democratic victories in the general election. Primary election influencing isn’t new, but the Democratic Party took it up a notch in 2020.

And in recent years, members have capitalized on the partisan primary dynamics to raise money.  A member of the House can raise significant amounts of money by making controversial, often outrageous public statements and posting these remarks on social media. Consider the case of Rep, Matt Gaetz. He has repeatedly used the timing of his public statements to send fundraising solicitations to donors. As reported in The Hill, during his recent motion to vacate” Speaker Kevin McCarthy, Gaetz used his statements and the extensive media coverage to solicit contributions. Republican Rep. Garret Graves criticized Gaetz for using the vote to oust House Speaker Kevin McCarthy as a means to fundraise online for himself, and not fellow Republican lawmakers. Republican Rep. Nancy Mace also criticized the actions of Gaetz. In January 2023, Mace supported McCarthys efforts to become Speaker. At that time, she criticized Matt Gaetz for fundraising off his efforts to prevent McCarthys election. In a January 8, 2023, statement, Mace said on CBSs Face The Nation,  Matt Gaetz is a fraud. Every time he voted against Kevin McCarthy, he sent out a fundraising email.” She added:  What you saw last week was a constitutional process diminished by those kinds of political actions.”

However, just nine short months later, Rep. Nancy Mace made a complete reversal. Mace joined 7 other Republican members in voting to oust McCarthy as Speaker of the House, and she sent out a fundraising message to supporters shortly after. In a divided America that leans heavily on the outcomes of partisan primaries, members of Congress can be rewarded for divisive confrontation rather than problem-solving…for grandstanding rather than governing. 

Partisan primary elections grew out of public concerns during the Progressive Era in the early 1900s. They were seen as a vast improvement to the backroom deals previously used for political candidate appointments. But over time, the process became distorted. The examples cited here indicate that even the distortions are becoming distorted. The current partisan primary dynamics diminish the effectiveness of all elected officials. 

So, are there any concrete actions that legislators and citizens can take to restore integrity to our electoral process? Actually, there are. In Wisconsin, a good place to start is enacting Final Five Voting legislation. This fall, companion bills, SB 528 / AB 563 have been introduced which will authorize using the Final Five Voting approach for U.S. Senate and House elections.

Here is a little background about Final Five Voting. There are two parts to the process. First, it uses an open primary that allows the top five primary vote recipients to advance to the general election. This approach dramatically reduces the likelihood that an incumbent official will be primaried for seeking bipartisan solutions to complex problems. It also means that larger numbers of voters will have more choices in the general election. Secondly, in the general election, the candidate who receives more than 50% of the vote is elected. However, if no candidate reaches the 50% level on the first round, an instant runoff approach (often called ranked choice voting) is used to determine the outcome. In each round of this runoff, the last-place candidate is eliminated, and any voter who had that candidate as their first choice has their vote transferred to their second-choice candidate. The process is repeated until a winner is chosen by a true majority of voters. Since second-choice votes are important, this process benefits candidates who avoid mud-slinging. 

What is so good about this process? Let's take a look at a version of Final Five Voting (called Final Four Voting) was adpted in Alaska in 2020. The results were very encouraging. In federal races, voters elected a moderate Republican Senator (Lisa Murkowski), a moderate Democratic Congressional Representative (Mary Pelota) and a Trump-endorsed Governor (Mike Dunleavy). Meanwhile, in developing the state budget in 2022, 17 out of 20 state senators and senator-elects banded together to form a bipartisan majority coalition. The process for adopting the budget was described as smooth compared to the contentiousness of years past. An article in The Hill describes the positive outcomes with a similar model that is successfully in place in Alaska.

Election runoffs are not new. Several states, such as Georgia and Louisiana, already use a separate runoff election for the top two vote getters if no candidate achieves 50% of the vote.  Of course, these runoff elections can be extremely expensive and divisive. But using the Final Five Voting process, voters know that if their first choice doesnt win, their vote automatically counts for their next choice instead. This frees voters from worrying about how others will vote, and which candidates are more or less likely to win.  

Twenty-three Wisconsin legislators are the initial co-authors or co-sponsors of the Final Five Voting legislation. There is an eleven/twelve split between Republicans and Democrats. Co-authors in the Senate are Jesse James (R-Altoona), Jeff Smith (D-Brunswick), Rob Cowles (R-Green Bay) and Mark Spreitzer (D-Beloit). Co-authors in the Assembly are Ron Tusler (R-Harrison), Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee) and Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc). For more information, including suggestions for lending support, contact democracyfound.org.

The Final Five Voting legislation in Wisconsin isn’t perfect. As introduced, it will apply to the elections for the U.S. Senate and U.S. House of Representatives, not state legislative positions. But it is a huge step in the right direction.

For a simple explanation how Final Five Voting works, check out this short video.

Bundling Election Messaging

October 2023

This entire season boils down to one word, bundle home and auto” ...Jake from State Farm.

The September 2022 Marquette poll showed that nearly one in three Wisconsin citizens did not believe the 2020 election results were accurate. Thats an astonishing number considering the laborious post-election recounts in Milwaukee and Madison verifying the results. In addition, a comprehensive study by conservative law firm, Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty (WILL), affirmed that the election outcomes were, in fact, correct.

So why is there still a refusal to believe the 2020 election results by so many Wisconsinites? First lets recognize that we have had periods in U.S. history when there was significant doubt about the correctness of elections outcomes. The outcome of the presidential election in 2000 was decided by an incredibly small margin in Florida...a key swing state with sufficient electoral college votes to swing the presidency for either candidate. The comprehensive statewide election recount found problems with  hanging chads” on the ballots which cast aside some votes that should have been counted. Nonetheless, five weeks after the November 7th election, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that sufficient recounting had occurred and George W. Bush was declared the winner. Bush won Florida's electoral votes by a margin of only 537 votes out of almost six million cast (0.009%). This left a lot of voters questioning whether election rules were manipulated to favor the Republican candidate.

In 2016, there was much speculation that the election of Donald Trump was influenced by backroom election interference by Russia. In response a Green Party-funded recount was held in Wisconsin and the Wisconsin election results were validated. But at the national level, questions remained about election interference. Robert Mueller was appointed by the Justice Department to serve as Special Counsel to investigate the possibility of Russian collusion within the Trump campaign. After a thorough investigation, the well-known Mueller Report did not find sufficient evidence of Russian collusion. These actions did not alter the outcomes of the voting results.

So, can we conclude that citizen doubts about the 2020 election results were like those in 2000 and 2016? Well, no. First lets recognize that both parties use political positioning to maximize election outcomes in their favor. A few examples of positioning include gerrymandering, ballot harvesting, dark money campaign contributions and rules which may suppress voter turnout. For the most part, political positioning activities operate within the gray areas of the law. Much of the battle in politics involves  working” the rules and laws that involve political positioning. If political positioning is determined to violate certain laws (e.g., a ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court), the activity may be legally altered or barred, but criminal penalties are almost unheard of.

This is not the same thing as election fraud. Specifically, the Election Crimes Branch of the U.S. Department of Justice provides advice and guidance on five types of election crime: 1) voting fraud, such as vote buying and absentee ballot fraud; (2) campaign finance crimes, including those under the Federal Election Campaign Act; (3) patronage crimes, such as political shakedowns and misuse of federal programs for political purposes; (4) frauds affecting elections, such as fraudulent fundraising schemes, including scam-political action committees or scam-PACs; and (5) criminal violations of federal voting rights statutes on the basis of race, color, national origin, or religion. Fraud violations of these specific crimes can result in severe penalties, including incarceration.

While election fraud significantly differs from political positioning, many elected leaders and party supporters describe both under the umbrella term, election fraud. As an example, the comprehensive and thorough Wisconsin election analysis by WILL found very few incidents of fraud as defined by the Elections Crimes Branch. They acknowledged this in their final report. However, they also identified several political positioning activities (expanded use of ballots boxes, Voting in the Park in Madison, for example) that were deemed unfair to Republicans. They also, incorrectly, labeled these activities in their final report as fraud.

Furthermore, while there was citizen doubt about the integrity of the 2000, 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, the 2020 election differed in that it was fueled by widespread accusations of fraud by elected leaders. These statements were made repeatedly despite recounts and numerous legal challenges that validated the results. Actual instances of fraud were isolated and had no impact on the presidential election results or the outcomes. But to many voters, widespread accusations of fraud was interpreted as evidence of government negligence in enforcing laws against election crimes. History has shown that when people in leadership positions repeatedly put forth a message, people will believe it, whether it is accurate or not.

In the current political environment, its become a practice to refer to all election process issues (criminal behavior as well as political positioning) as fraud. I am reminded of the messaging in the insurance ads which promise us that we will save money by bundling our auto and home insurance. Elected leaders recognize that bundling sells. Bundling election fraud and political positioning under the label of election fraud will get more voter response. Voters should inform elected leaders that they know better.

It's Not Easy To Be A Unifier

September 2023

For the first time, 13 Presidential Foundations and Centers across the United States have issued a joint statement regarding the future of our nation and an urgent call to action for all Americans. The George W. Bush Presidential Center is joined by fellow presidential centers and foundations to reaffirm our commitment to the democratic values on which this country was founded. The following message is at the heart of the joint statement: “Each of us has a role to play and responsibilities to uphold. Our elected officials must lead by example and govern effectively in ways that deliver for the American people. This, in turn, will help to restore trust in public service. The rest of us must engage in civil dialogue; respect democratic institutions and rights; uphold safe, secure, and accessible elections; and contribute to local, state, or national improvement.” In other words, we are being challenged to be unifiers rather than dividers.

In today’s political climate, it is difficult to be a unifier. In many ways, the stage is set for conflict rather than collaboration. “Most notably, the nation came together following the 9/11 attacks,” Rachael Larimore of the Dispatch Weekly commented. “It’s unfortunate it took such a horrific tragedy for Americans to come together two decades ago. What’s even more unfortunate is that, if a similar tragedy happened today, I’m not confident Americans would respond the same way.” Consider the remarks of Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee from the latest episode of his “Huckabee” program on the Trinity Broadcasting Network. He stated, “Do you know how political opponents to those in power are dealt with in third-world dictatorships, banana republics and communist regimes? The people in power use their police agencies to arrest their opponents for made-up crimes in an attempt to discredit them, bankrupt them, imprison them, exile them or all of the above. He added that the 2024 election may be the last decided by “ballots rather than bullets” if former President Donald Trump does not win. These remarks underscore the importance (and urgency) in the statement made by the 13 Presidential Foundations and Centers.

In a Wisconsin State Journal article by Richard Kyte, Director of the Reinhart Center for Ethics in Leadership, he reflected on the importance of building trust. He stated, “Communities with high levels of trust are comprised of people who enjoy working together and know how to do it. Communities with low levels of trust have people who undermine one another or who refuse to collaborate because they are pursuing their own interests. They believe defeating their opponents is more important than achieving their shared goals.” But trust-building will not occur if people isolate in separate camps. With Rick Kyte’s permission, we are sharing his experience which was included in the article. 

Several years ago, I was asked to serve on a local council tasked with reducing the jail population. The jail was over capacity, and the county board did not want to approve an addition to a structure that had just been completed a few years before. The council was comprised of some citizen representatives, some county board members and several criminal justice professionals, including judges, attorneys and law enforcement officers. Even though nobody was formally affiliated with a political party, those with conservative leanings would sit on one side of the table and those with liberal leanings on the other. When anybody from one side proposed a strategy, the other side would oppose it. We met at 7 a.m. every two weeks for six months and accomplished nothing at all. Then somebody had the brilliant idea of bringing coffee and doughnuts to the meeting. Instead of everybody walking straight over to their usual seat at the table, folks would gather around the doughnuts and end up talking to whoever happened to be standing next to them. They would have conversations about how their children or grandchildren were doing in school, where they had traveled over the summer, how their gardens were growing. Sometimes they would wander over to a couple of open seats and continue their conversation. After a few weeks I noticed during the meeting that right- and left-leaning council members were scattered randomly around the table, and because it was no longer quite as evident whether proposals were coming from the “right” side or the “wrong” side, they were listening to each other a little bit more. Over the following months we began to make slow but steady progress, reducing the jail population by improving the intake process, reducing courthouse delays and eliminating ineffective programs. Neither side won the debate; instead, we got rid of the sides and just started to focus on fixing the problem.

This story is insightful. In a politically divided climate, people may initially feel uncomfortable interacting with people from the “other side”. Or they may simply gravitate to associate with others who appear to be like minded. However, with encouragement (as in the story, sometimes rather simple), people can shift their thinking from political ideology to problem solving.

Elected leaders, for good or bad, are role models. In the tense world of politics, it can be easy for elected leaders to lose focus beyond the next election. Bridge-building (even involving simple statements and gestures) can be presented as wrong, even treasonous. Many elected leaders choose to be silent about the growing divisiveness. Yet, in terms of potential outcomes, their silence can be deafening. One could argue that both the Presidential Foundations and Centers and former Governor Huckabee share real concerns about the future of the American democratic republic. However, there are real differences. One is appealing to Americans to follow their better angel. The other is blaming political opponents for whatever may transpire. The Presidential Foundations and Centers earn a green light for their public statement. Former Governor Huckabee earns a red flag for his public remarks

Two States on a Different Path

July 2023

The November 2022 election was emblematic of the choices being made by two states…Alaska and Wisconsin. Of course the two states are different in terms of history and culture. Yet both are operating under the pressure of the growing partisan political divide. Due to differing circumstances, the 2022 election offered some hope that the two political parties might be able to cooperate. Let’s see how that played out in developing and approving the state budgets in the respective states in 2023.

In Alaska, the Final Four Voting (FFV) model went through it’s inaugural election in November. Alaskans elected a variety of officials under FFV: a center-right U.S. Senator (Republican Lisa Murkowski), a center-left U.S. Representative (Democrat Mary Peltola) and a Governor backed by Donald Trump (Republican Mike Dunleavy). Republicans outnumbered Democrats in the two houses, as they have through most of the states history. The first true test of FFV came this spring in adopting the state’s budget. In a May 26, 2023 editorial in the Anchorage Daily News, they expressed, “Alaskas budget, which passed the Legislature last week, was a classic political compromise, with a smaller divided check than many would have liked but larger spending on education and other public goods the state clearly needs. Nobody got everything they wanted, but half a loaf beats nothing at all. While normal politics is usually nothing to celebrate, it does seem like a step forward after the past few years. The return to normalcy was based around the resurrection of cross-party coalitions in both the Senate — the key mover in budget negotiations — and the House. Compromise came before party loyalty. In the Senate, Republicans joined with Democrats to form a strong supermajority caucus. In the House, 19 Republicans formed a coalition with two independents and two Democrats, marginalizing some of the more extreme voices in the chamber.”

The FFV model has been touted for providing a disincentive for hyper-partisanship. Elected leaders who are willing to compromise with the other party are less likely to by “primaried” in the FFV open primary model. This seems to be the case in Alaska. The priority policies for both political parties remain. It’s just that there is a broader range of options available in working for those priorities in the FFV model.

Compare this to the dynamics in Wisconsin. As a result of the November 2022 elections, Tony Evers was re-elected as Governor, while both the State Senate and Assembly remained solidly in Republican hands. The results appeared to reflect the sentiment of voters. As reported in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, voters wanted to see the legislature and Governor work together. In fact, following the election, it appeared that was the direction things were going. In late November 2022, Wisconsin's top Republican leaders said that for the first time in two years they're talking to Governor Tony Evers and hope to end the ongoing stalemate between the Legislature and governor's office, the impasse that voters voiced frustration with in the mid-term elections.

As the budget approval process progressed in Wisconsin in early 2023, there were signs of compromise with shared funding for local governments and education. Nonetheless, there remained significant points of difference when the legislature passed the state budget in June 2023, most notably regarding an income tax cut and a $32 million funding reduction for diversity equity and inclusion programs in the University of Wisconsin System. The Senate passed the budget on a nearly party-line vote, with no Democrats in support. The Assembly rejected all Democratic amendments before passing the budget on June 29 by a 63-34 vote along party lines.

Governor Evers signed the budget bill on July 5th. There were a number of major items with bipartisan support, including increased funding for local governments and increased funding for public education. However, the Governor made a number of line-item vetoes in the process, not without controversy. The line-item veto practice is allowed by law in Wisconsin and has been used by other Governors in prior years. The GOP version of the budget aimed to cut income taxes by $3.5 billion across all three tax brackets, including the state's wealthiest residents. Evers vetoed the proposed cuts for the state's top two income tax brackets while preserving the cuts to the bottom. To the dismay of Republicans, this  reduced a potential $3.5 billion tax reduction to $175 million. Evers was not able to line-item veto the Republican-led $32 million cut to the UW System budget aimed at eliminating programming related to diversity, equity, and inclusion at the state's 13 universities. However, Evers' veto leaves the 188.8 positions associated with DEI intact. Evers said the budget still provides "an opportunity for the UW System to retain the $32 million in this final budget." Thus, the positions may be funded. However, in order to receive the $32 million in funding, the University System must provide a plan to focus the effort on workforce development, subject to approval by the Republican-dominated Legislative Joint Finance Committee. Evers also surgically used his veto pen to extend increased education funding commitments for 402 years. The governor did so by striking the number 20 and the hyphen from "2024-25" in budget documents to get to the date 2425. In defending his action, Evers pointed to a similar action taken by his predecessor, Scott Walker.

The net result is a state budget that, because of the final days and hours of the budget-development process, left a bad taste in the mouth for both parties. Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos claims he is preparing to sue regarding the budget vetoes made by Governor Tony Evers earlier this week, WISN reports. Vos says the governor had lied over promises made during private budget negotiations, regarding both education funding and the shared revenue agreement. Assembly Majority Leader Tyler August on Evers' vetoes said, "It will be difficult, if not impossible, to ever negotiate with this governor again in the future.” 

So how do the two states compare overall? Both Alaska and Wisconsin were able to complete the budget approval process on time. And both budgets included major items with bipartisan agreement. Beyond that, there are sharp differences. In Alaska, the budget development process involved several cross-party coalitions. As stated in the Anchorage Daily News, compromise came before party loyalty. Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, initially, there was increased communication between the legislature and the Governor when compared to the prior budget process. But the increased communication did not result in the "give and take" of a bipartisan agreement. Notably, it did not reduce mistrust, setting the stage for a contentious 2023-24 legislative session. Consequently, there is a “hangover effect” that will likely resurface in future legislative situations. The Alaska Governor and State Legislature gets a green light for their efforts to incorporate FFV in order to promote bipartisan collaboration. Meanwhile, there are red flags for the Governor and legislative leaders in Wisconsin for their failure to seek models such as FFV in order to more effectively work together.

The WEC and the Heavy Lifting of Ethical Leadership

June 2023

It is difficult to serve in a leadership role if one is to lead with integrity. This statement is valid in any situation but perhaps even more so for leaders in the political arena. A Pew Research study seems to bear out that statement. They found that clear majorities of Americans are confident their fellow citizens will act in a number of important pro-civic ways. This includes reporting serious local problems to authorities, obeying federal and state laws, doing what they can to help those in need and honestly reporting their income when paying taxes.

However, this level of confidence does not extend across all civic activities. It drops down dramatically as soon as politics enters the scene. The response of U.S. adults are mixed on whether they can count on fellow Americans to accept election results regardless of who wins: 53% express a fair amount” or a great deal” of confidence that others will accept the results, while 47% say they have not too much” or no confidence at all” that others will accept the election outcome. The study also showed that 57% of the respondents questioned whether citizens cast informed votes in elections. And 67% reported that they believe ethics in government is a very big problem. Given these indicators, it seems that elected leaders and government officials do not have the benefit of starting out in their role with a clean slate, in terms of public trust. And with each subsequent action taken, the cloud of public mistrust adds weight to their votes or decisions.

Consider the situation that is unfolding with the oversight of elections in Wisconsin. Meagan Wolfe is the Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission (WEC), serving as the states Chief Election Official. Meagan was appointed by the bi-partisan, six-member Commission in February of 2018 and unanimously confirmed by the Wisconsin State Senate in May of 2019 for a four-year term. Her term ends on June 30, 2023. 

The WEC is a six-member commission with three Democratic appointees and three Republican appointees. The administrator and WEC staff make recommendations to the commission based upon an analysis of the best available information. A majority vote is needed in order to enact any modifications to election practices. The split nature of the commission may seem ripe for political gridlock. Yet by all indicators, the election process in Wisconsin is well organized and operates with integrity. With 1851 local municipalities, the primary role of the WEC is to provide guidance and technical assistance to local election officials. In both the 2020 and 2022 elections, the conditions were politically charged and challenging. In fact, following several recounts and audits in 2020, there has been no evidence of voter fraud or tampering, other than a very small number of isolated cases. The elections were well run. Despite this, the work of the WEC has been criticized and almost all of the criticism has been directed to the non-voting Administrator, Meagan Wolfe.

In a June 27th meeting, the Wisconsin Elections Commission voted on the renewal of Meagan Wolf’s term. All six members of the commission verbally agreed that Wolfe was highly qualified and successfully led the agency through some of the most contentious years for election officials. They also agreed that her tenuous status as administrator was a result of her being the face of the agency during a time when former President Donald Trump's false claims about the 2020 election had created a community of election deniers. Here’s where politics enters the picture. The commission deadlocked 3-3. The 3 Republican appointed members voted to renew, while the 3 Democratic appointed members abstained. It certainly appears that the eyes of all commission members were on the next steps in the process…and the 2024 election.

Let’s look at some of the things that apparently were going on behind the scenes. Note there are several scenarios on hand. Under scenario one, if the commission approved renewal for Wolfe, her position must then be ratified in the Republican controlled Senate, where there is strong opposition. As reported in ProPublica Democrats are suspicious that the Republican-led Senate will not renew Meagan Wolfe in any case.

Because the commission failed to vote for renewal, a second scenario seemed likely. Under state law, the commission has 45 days after the expiration of Wolfes term to choose a new administrator. If its unable to do so, the responsibility passes to the Legislatures Joint Committee on Legislative Organization (JCLO). The JCLO is made up of the majority and minority leadership of both houses, including Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (R) and Senate Majority Leader Devin LeMahieu (R). The committee can select an interim administrator to serve for up to one year or until the Senate confirms someone permanently. If the position is still vacant after a year, the process starts over with another commission vote. 

However, a third, untested scenario is unfolding. Let’s call it’s the Prehn scenario. Should Republican lawmakers move to appoint a new administrator while Wolfe is still working, Democrats would almost certainly file a lawsuit arguing there is no vacancy to fill based on a 2022 Supreme Court ruling that sided with Frederick Prehn, a former Natural Resources Board chairman who decided to stay in his position nearly two years after his term expired. In abstaining on the vote on Wolfe's reappointment, all three Democrat appointees, the presumed strongest supporters of Wolfe, cited the Prehn decision as the basis for their abstentions. Should the Democrats pursue the Prehn scenario, it will certainly be tested in court, where their prospects might be better than in the Legislature. ”I will take my shots with the court rather than at the Senate,” said Democratic Commissioner Mark Thomsen. It should also be recognized that both political parties have options within each scenario.

Those in a leadership role clearly understand that it is not possible to please everyone. The nature of the leadership role is to provide direction and make decisions. This is the heavy lifting of ethical leadership. In the effort to bring people together and direct efforts toward the common good, many times these actions will be unpopular and, as evidenced by the Pew Research study, viewed with mistrust. However, at times, the actions of leaders will also carry the weight of the flaws in the system. Without question, serving as the WEC administrator is a challenge given the split makeup of the commission. It is particularly challenging in these hyper-partisan times. Based upon the commission’s action, Wolfe will remain as administrator, presumably until the issue is settled in court. Immediately following the June 27th WEC vote, Wolfe told reporters, "We are in unprecedented territory. I have a very clear intent here − and that is to make sure that our commission, our agency, our local election officials, that they have the stability they need as we move forward”. 

Meagan Wolfe is a talented and effective leader. Yet because of the political dynamics, her position is in limbo until one of the scenarios fully unfolds. In any case, it is likely that she will land on her feet. Meagan Wolfe earns a green light for her performance as Administrator of the Wisconsin Elections Commission.

Rebuilding Trust in Media

May 2023

Sadly, public trust in media has decreased as the political divide has increased. When any institution suffers a loss in trust, it can have a devastating impact on the institution. Yet the challenges facing the media differ somewhat from other institutions because of the ongoing reciprocal relationship to the political system.

As long as the nation is severely divided politically, the media faces an uphill climb to restore trust.

How steep is the climb? Lets look at some of the recent studies. A collaborative research study by Gallup and Knight Foundation of 20,000 Americans highlights some of the reasons for the underlying distrust in media. This is a very comprehensive study and readers are encouraged to check out the full report. Among their findings:

Sixty-eight percent of Americans say that it is a major problem” that they see too much bias in the reporting of news that is supposed to be objective.

Many Americans perceive inaccurate news to be intentional — either because the reporter is misrepresenting the facts (52%) or making them up entirely (28%).

Nearly 3 in 4 Americans (74%) say the news organizations they distrust are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain viewpoint.

16% say news organizations are trying to report the news accurately and fairly but are unable to do so.

Nine percent of Americans say distrusted media are trying to ruin the country.

Despite these conclusions, the study respondents also recognized the importance of the news media. The vast majority of Americans (81%) stated that, in general, the news media is critical” (42%) or very important” (39%) to democracy. And large majorities say it is critical” or very important” for the news media to provide accurate and fair news reports (88%), ensure Americans are informed about public affairs (88%) and hold leaders accountable for their actions (82%). 

Research by Trusting News reinforces the challenges faced in rebuilding trust in media. Trusting News conducted an 8-week study in the summer of 2022. Journalists from nine partner news organizations conducted 76 interviews with people in their communities. In addition to the community interviews, 76 follow-up journalist surveys were logged, and 43 follow-up community surveys were completed. Finally, a focus group of journalists was held.

There was consensus among conservatives and liberals regarding the overarching goal…they want the media to report the facts, neutrally.” And there was general agreement that journalism was essential for democracy and also for healthy communities, but not in its current form. Despite the similarities, there were differences between community members who identified as conservatives or liberals. Conservatives want reporters to stop reporting content about Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ communities and identities, and other liberal” topics. They want reporters to stop using politicized phrases and report just the facts.” Liberals, on the other hand, want more context and background incorporated into coverage, especially of marginalized communities. They want reporters to call out politicians who are lying or being racist, etc., and to play a role in helping communities solve problems. They too want  just the facts.”

The process used in the Trusting News study was insightful as well. It was determined that simply listening to community members who dont trust you helps to build trust. In the community member follow-up surveys, 23% reported that their feelings about journalism in general changed for the better, 86% said they felt a sense of trust building with the reporter or the news organization after the conversation, and 28% were considering subscribing.

The Trusting News study led to the development of Trust Kits, a self-guided training tool. Trust Kits are intended to offer journalists and news organizations step-by-step guides for how they can demonstrate credibility and actively earn trust as independent news sources. Their goal is to break down big trust-building strategies into actionable steps designed to improve transparency and credibility with the news audience. The kits focus on nine areas: ethics, explaining coverage, listening, earning trust with sources, opinion, transparency, explaining sourcing, reporter mission statements and corrections. Furthermore, it is expected that the content in the Trust Kits will grow and evolve over time. It is an impressive endeavor. It should be noted that the Trust Kits do not strive to turn around the image of news media at the national level. But they can make a difference at the local level. They can give journalists helpful tools to better navigate the political divide. They emphasize listening, transparency and connecting with people with diverse perspectives, and have earned a green light for their efforts.

In writing about independent journalism, A.J Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times, stated, Independence asks reporters to adopt a posture of searching, rather than knowing. It demands that we reflect the world as it is, not the world as we may wish it to be. It requires journalists to be willing to exonerate someone deemed a villain or interrogate someone regarded as a hero. It insists on sharing what we learn—fully and fairly regardless of whom it may upset or what the political consequences might be.” These words may seem to be a tall order given todays political climate. The media and the political world are inextricably intertwined. But that is all the more reason why it is important to take steps forward, like the Trust Kits. Indeed, there are parallels between independent journalism and promoting ethical leadership for elected officials. Both require a commitment to do the heavy lifting toward meeting established principles, be it the words of Sulzberger or the commitment to the four principles of truthfulness, transparency, unification and full representation of constituents.

In the words of Marty Baron, former executive editor of the Washington Post, Failure to achieve standards does not obviate the need for them. It does not render them outmoded. It makes them more necessary.” 

One U.S. City Cut Gun Violence in Half

April 2023

Few issues can generate more controversy than gun violence. I recently received the following unsolicited social media message, “Is anyone working locally on this crazy gun problem we have in our society? It is such a major issue, and it is hurting the soul of our nation.” By all appearances, this message seemed to be an effort to reach out to anyone, anywhere, with some hopeful information.

Gun violence is a major issue in the United States. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have already been 13,169 gun violence deaths nationally in 2023, as of April 24th. This number includes 80 children ages 0 to 11. These are staggering statistics! Tragically, across the country, communities and political leaders are gridlocked on the issue of reducing gun violence.

Despite these alarming conditions, one city...Omaha, Nebraska...has made significant progress at reducing gun violence incidents. A diverse city of a half million residents, Omaha is quite literally making measurable progress while much of the rest of the country is moving in the other direction. The city's effort is called Omaha 360. The initiative started in 2009 by the Empowerment Network, an organization comprised of nonprofits, neighborhood associations, churches, and local law enforcement. Omaha 360 focuses on addressing the immediate threats of gun violence as well as underlying issues that contribute to it. Community engagement is key. Omaha 360 partners meet weekly to review crime statistics and to discuss upcoming issues and conditions to help develop preemptive actions. They also emphasize reentry strategies for offenders as a key component in breaking the cycle of violence. Local law enforcement officers admitted that there was skepticism at first. Community engagement was a key component and they wondered if interest would wane over time. In looking back, they also realized that it would take learning on their part, to embrace new practices aimed at breaking the cycle of violence. Ultimately, they recognized that the community engagement indeed sustained. At the same time, they began to embrace the change in the culture in law enforcement. 

The Omaha numbers speak for themselves. The number of shooting victims in the city stood at 246 in 2009. in 2022, that number was 121. During that same timeframe, the number of shooting incidents dropped from 191 to 90. These results caught the attention of leaders in other U.S. cities, and several are involved in early conversations about adopting this model.

Indeed, the Omaha story provides hope. Cities can move beyond blaming and denial, toward a safer community. But given the political divisiveness surrounding the issues of gun violence, there are challenges as well. Communities planning to adopt the Omaha model should perhaps start with an initial review of these questions.

Can your community effectively collaborate in these politically divided times? Collaboration isn’t easy, even in the best of times. It is worth noting that Omaha 360 began in 2009. As shown in the studies by the Pew Research Center, this was just before the dramatic widening of the political divide in the United States. The increased political divisiveness we are seeing today has an added effect… reduced trust, a key element in resolving issues at the local level. This means that collaborative efforts on tough issues such as reducing gun violence may be harder today for those communities looking to get started.

Can your community embrace a comprehensive approach? As reported in ABC News, Thomas Abt of the Center for the Study and Practice of Violence Reduction at the University of Maryland stated, “The country is not facing just one gun violence problem. It is facing at least four…. everyday community violence, domestic and intimate partner violence, mass shootings and suicide.” His point is that we cannot afford to get bogged down debating simple solutions. Furthermore, there is a cloud of misinformation surrounding the issues of gun violence. Jumping to simple solutions in this murky environment doesn’t work. The proposed actions tend to get mired in the political debate. Omaha 360 uses a comprehensive, measurable approach based upon the review of crime statistics and other community data. If other cities seek to adopt the Omaha model, they will need to take steps to first address the cloud of misinformation in their community, then work for broad-based buy-in for a comprehensive approach.

Can your community demonstrate the persistence needed to get results? The Omaha model has been at it for more than 14 years. Law enforcement and community leaders have been meeting weekly for that entire time. They initially did not see a significant reduction in gun violence during the first three years. Yet they persisted. By the sixth year, the numbers of gun violence incidents and victims were reduced dramatically. The lowest gun violence levels were in 2017, 2018 and 2019. It is worth noting that the incidents of gun violence in Omaha began to increase during the pandemic, as they did elsewhere in the country. But they did not rise anywhere near the former levels. And they are now trending downward again. Conditions evolve. Community actions must adapt over time with the changing conditions.

If this seems like this is a lot of work, it is. But it is also important to keep in mind, that most communities face other challenging issues as well. Using the thoughtful approach demonstrated by the Omaha model can set the stage for depoliticizing other issues at the local level...and getting results. In a politically divided time, just getting started can be daunting. The hopeful news is that while national and state solutions on tough issues such as gun violence may seem out of reach, cities like Omaha have demonstrated that they can accomplish real results.

Read more about their approach in ABC NewsOne city cut gun violence in half and may become a model around the country. Omaha, Nebraska, has seen a marked decrease in shootings.We award a green light to city leaders for working with community leaders to develop Omaha 360, which focuses on addressing immediate threats of gun violence as well as underlying issues that contribute to it. 

For good or bad, elected leaders are role models

March 2023

I recently heard about a friend who was reluctant to go to a community program on politics because she didn't want to  enter a room filled with anger, hostility and a climate of distrust”. Not every program about political issues deteriorates to this state, but sadly, many do. By their words and actions, elected leaders who fail to act as ethical leaders may create or, at a minimum, contribute to the climate of hostility and distrust.

How much do we know about the impact of ethical leaders in politics? Not as much as wed like. A recent study, Can Ethical Political Leadership Restore Public Trust in Political Leaders? was designed to understand how ethical leadership practices can restore public trust in political leaders. Conducted in the United Kingdom, the study used in-depth interviews with 121 political leaders from 65 local election districts. The study found that an ethical political leader not only sets a good example of behavior but can set the tone for other elected officials. Additionally, they are better situated to challenge those who do not behave ethically and encourage and support those who do. They concluded that with ethical leadership, the level of public trust in political leaders is likely to gradually increase.

So why are we looking at a research study in the UK? Because there are so few studies on ethical leadership in politics in the United States. As pointed out by author, Karin Lasthuisen,  While research on ethical leadership in organizations has proliferated over the last decades, specific attention to the complexities involved in such leadership in the public and political realm remains surprisingly limited.”

Does this mean we dont have ways of determining the impact of ethical leadership in the political arena in the U.S.? While we could certainly benefit from further study, I think we have some solid indicators. The Sienna College Research Institute is considered to be the most reliable source for ranking the U.S. presidents. They have been conducting a ranked analysis of the U.S. presidents since 1982 using 20 criteria within the overall categories of attributes, abilities, and accomplishments. Two of the 20 criteria are integrity and the ability to compromise...key characteristics of an ethical leader. It is not surprising that Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and George Washington were ranked highly in these two categories. Former president Jimmy Carter ranked second only to Abraham Lincoln in integrity. The other criteria lowered Carter s overall ranking. His job performance during a time of high inflation, compounded by the Iran hostage crisis, led to Carter being included among the one-term U.S. presidents, ranking 24th overall. But ethical leadership practices are a significant factor because they impact other criteria and overall ranking. Joining the one-term presidents group, former president Donald Trump was ranked 43rd by Sienna, ranking 43rd in ability to compromise, and 45th in integrity.

Among elected politicians and candidates, there can be a reluctance to take an ethically sound but unpopular stand fearing the outcomes at the polls. Taking a difficult vote or compromising with the other political party can result in being voted out of office, often during the next primary election. For example, of the 10 Republican House members who voted to impeach former president Donald Trump in 2021, four lost in the primary election, four opted to retire and two were re-elected. Our partisan primary system, with its own set of problems, likely contributed to these outcomes.

Does this mean that an ethical leader must ultimately be willing to fall on the sword? Well, maybe. Elected leaders who stand on principle may choose a legacy of integrity as a better alternative than reelection based upon deceit. However, overall performance over time can overcome these dynamics. Consider the work of the CommonGroundCommittee.org, an organization that recognizes bipartisanship and elected leaders who seek points of agreement on social and political issues through listening and productive conversation. They publicly recognize elected leaders for serving as role models for good citizenship over a sustained period. As a four-term congressman, Mike Gallagher (R-WI) is rated well above average by the Common Ground Committee, the highest ranking among Wisconsin elected leaders. Rep. Gallagher is chairing the newly formed Select Committee on China, along with co-chair Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill). The two congressmen have successfully worked together in prior years. Recognizing that the Select Committee is just getting started, it is too soon to predict how it will go and what will be accomplished. Nonetheless, in the 118th Congress, considered by many to be primed for dysfunction, the Select Committee on China is projected to use a bipartisan approach to present actionable recommendations to the full House.

We need to encourage formal study of ethical leadership within the political process. It is a far better step than the finger pointing and blaming that leads to anger, hostility, and mistrust. It is a sad situation when people are afraid to participate in public discourse. The breakdown in trust puts us all perilously at risk. For now, the responsibility is ours. As a nation we must acknowledge and place value on the impact of ethical leadership within the political process and withhold support when it is violated. And its also important to publicly recognize ethical leadership in practice. We need to place emphasis on building trust within our democratic republic. That process can start by using the tools of good citizenship: to speak out, to contribute, to vote.


Is the Culture in the U.S. House Hopeless?

February 2023

Recent images appearing from the U.S. House of Representatives show a confrontational and dysfunctional culture. The Republican majority in the 118th Congress is slim, leading to Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s compromise agreements with members of the most extreme faction within the House. The priority of this faction appears to be conducting investigations into the President and various Departments, including Justice and Homeland Security. Most experts believe the prospects are slim for meaningfully legislation that will pass both the House and the Senate in 2023 and 2024.

Of course, hyper-partisanship and dysfunctionality in the House of Representatives is not new. Even though significant legislation passed in the 117th Congress, much was by slim partisan margins. However, there is a notable exception to these hyper-partisan dynamics. Consider the Select Committee on the Modernization of Congress (referred to as the Modernization Committee). It was established by H.Res. 6 on January 4, 2019, and is tasked to investigate, study, make findings, hold public hearings, and develop recommendations to make Congress more effective, efficient, and transparent. There certainly was a need for serious work in this area. Many of the the practices under review were outdated and obsolete and, as such, costly and time-consuming. Nonetheless, there was reason to believe this committee would not achieve significant results. The last select committee created to reform Congress, which focused on budgeting, passed no recommendations by the time it ended in 2018. Expectations for the Modernization Committee were accompanied by a sense of realism.

Nonetheless, with the leadership of chair Rep. Derek Kilmer (D) and co-chair Rep. Tom Graves (R), the Modernization Committee got off to a good start. The twelve-member committee consisted of 6 Democrats and six Republicans. The members of the modernization committee did things differently than other Congressional committees, on purpose. They started the session with a bipartisan planning retreat, which almost never happens in Congress. Rather than having separate staffs for Democrats and Republicans, they hired one bipartisn staff team. That meant they started with twice as much staffing capacity, and everyone was rowing in the same direction. The committee made good progress in their first two years. 

Then came the January 6th assault on the U.S. Capitol. This was a low point for the committee. The breach of the Capitol was a traumatic event for the members. Many Democrats refused to work with any of the 147 Republicans who had voted against certifying the election results — three of whom were on the Modernization Committee, including the new Republican vice chairman, William Timmons (S.C.). As reported in a Washington Post article by Amanda Ripley, after a long conversation that involved tequila, Kilmer and Timmons decided to confront the fracture directly. Because they felt the only way out of this difficult conflict is forward. On March 20, 2021, the committee members met for a confidential conversation (on Zoom because of the pandemic) about what they had experienced on Jan. 6 and how it was affecting their ability to work together. In a break from tradition, outside facilitators helped moderate the process. The moderated session brought out the personal, human side of the January 6th events. And it helped to restore the functionality of the committee. Once they resumed meeting, they adjusted the room layout and operating rules to encourage roundtable discussion. They scheduled periodic meals together and established joint gathering spaces for committee members. As a committee, they were back on track.

Once their planning work was completed, the Modernization Committee chose to not only focus making recommendations, but to also assist with implementation efforts. This has allowed the committee to make progress on 132 of the 202 recommendations passed in the 116th and 117th Congress. This includes 45 of which have been fully implemented and 87 that have been partially implemented. Based upon their work, the full House acted twice to extend the committee until January 2023. It is now officially expired. The success of the Modernization Committee is a story of transparency and functioning as a team of unifiers.

What about the 118th Congress?

As previously stated, the 118th Congress got off to a rocky start. But there may be an opportunity for one prominent committee to make bipartisan headway. The new select committee on China may be worth watching. Republicans and Democrats on the panel say it could be the one bright spot of bipartisan cooperation in a Congress brimming with partisan bickering. The China committee s two leaders — Chair Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., and ranking member Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill. — are setting the tone early, identifying areas where they say they can expect to find bipartisan agreement on policy and legislation. The following are among the committee’s priorities: spotlighting human rights abuses by the Chinese Communist Party; devising a strategy to reduce U.S. dependence on China; making investments in artificial intelligence, robotics and other new technology to compete with China; and investigating the alliance between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Gallagher and Krishnamoorthi have had a history of working together since they both arrived in Congress in 2017. That year, the two teamed up to launch a new jobs caucus, and they have served alongside each other on the House Intelligence Committee. 

The work of the Modernization Committee is encouraging. They tossed out some of the traditional practices that generally reinforce partisan competitiveness and mistrust. They were even able to overcome one of the most traumatic occurrences on Capitol Hill…the January 6th assault…and bring about significant results. Chairman Kilmer and Co-chair, Timmons and all of the members of the Modernizatiin Committee have earned a green lightfor serving as unifiers in a divided political climate. The Select Committee on China is new and untested in the partisan dynamics of the 118th Congress. It appears that they are framing their work to bring about results. We will be watching their work closely in the year ahead.

Is Gerrymandering Ethical?

January 2023

Is gerrymandering an ethical practice? It is an interesting question. The U.S. Constitution requires that legislative and congressional districts get redrawn at least once every 10 years using new census data to guarantee equal representation. The Equal Protection clause of the 14th Amendment clarified this, and the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently upheld this practice. This means that as nearly as is practicable, one person’s vote in a congressional election is to be worth as much as another’s. Gerrymandering is a term coined after the actions of Elbridge Gerry, a Founding Father and signer of the Declaration of Independence. He also served as governor of Massachusetts and signed the bill creating the misshapen state senate district designed to benefit his political party. Many contend that the practice of gerrymandering is undemocratic. However, the Supreme Court’s 2019 ruling determined that gerrymandering for political party advantage cannot be challenged in federal court. The states are responsible for the redistricting process and for the determination of a process that meets the Equal Protection clause of the Constitution. Essentially, though the U.S. Constitution requires equal representation in numbers, based upon census data, it is silent on equal representation based upon political party preferences.

It is not surprising that the term gerrymandering is considered a partisan practice and a hot topic by both political parties. The LeaderEthics organization held a seminar in 2022 on the topic of Gerrymandering. The speaker was from the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. It was an information session focusing on national practices. The speaker explained that, nationally, both political parties practice gerrymandering, however the process is much more complex and sophisticated given today’s technology. He demonstrated that you cannot just look at a map and determine a fair or gerrymandered district. Meanwhile, a Wisconsin state legislative staff member contacted one of the event sponsors (a business organization), criticizing them for sponsoring a “political” event. To their credit, the sponsor responded stating that the LeaderEthics organization, and their programs, are nonpartisan.

The State of Iowa uses a non-political model for the redistricting process, which is a variation of what is called fair maps. Within the legislative branch there is the Legislative Services Agency, a nonpartisan entity. The law directs the agency to draw maps with equal population being the primary consideration. There are other factors, including respect for political subdivisions, contiguousness, and compactness. However, what makes Iowa unique is that political factors are specifically excluded. Districts cannot be drawn to favor any political party or an incumbent. Data concerning incumbents’ addresses, their party affiliation, the party affiliation of voters, and previous election returns are excluded. 

Wisconsin maps are drawn by the legislature and the Governor. Political factors and voting patterns are very much included in the process. If the legislature and the Governor are in the same political party (as was the case for Republicans in 2010), the maps favor the party in power. It should be noted that in 2009, Democrats had majorities in the State Senate and Assembly and held the Governor’s seat. Nonpartisan redistricting legislation was proposed. Democratic Party leaders took a pass on approving the legislation, expecting to maintain the ‘trifecta’ in 2010 and thus overseeing the redistricting process. They were wrong. Instead, Republicans swept the 2010 elections by narrow margins and held the sole authority for re-drawing the legislative maps.

Does a redistricting process such as used in Iowa mean there will be balance between the two political parties? That may not be the case. Consider the situation with statewide elections in Iowa. In 2008, 52 counties voted blue. Yet in 2022, Iowa had only 5 counties that voted Democratic, primarily those in and adjacent to Cedar Rapids and Des Moines. As of January 18, 2023, The Republican Party holds the Governor's office, the State Senate, the State House and all 4 U.S. Congressional seats. Even with a fair map system, demographic changes are a factor.

Changing demographic voting patterns are also a factor in Wisconsin. Consider the second-term election results for two Democratic Governors, Jim Doyle and Tony Evers. Doyle received 52.7% of the vote in his 2006 re-election bid. Evers received 51.1% of the vote in his 2022 re-election. Though the margin for victory in the two elections was remarkably close, Doyle carried 47 counties, while Evers carried only 16 counties. In short, in the last decade and a half, most rural counties shifted to vote Republican, while larger cities overwhelmingly voted Democratic. 

There are also important trends in sub-population areas. For example, the overall population in Wisconsin grew by 9.7% between 2000 and 2020. At the same time, the Latino population grew by 126%. Latino strategists and advocacy groups say both parties are still missing the mark. They argue that the Democratic and Republican campaigns both continue to treat Latino voters like a single voting bloc, failing to recognize their individual and community-based concerns. Meanwhile, in 2022, the suburban shift in favor of Democratic votes is continuing. The so-called WOW counties (Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington) still tend to vote Republican yet are no longer considered to be an impenetrable Republican stronghold. 

Should states like Wisconsin adopt the Iowa Model? The answer is yes. Gerrymandering is inherently divisive and lacks transparency. It employs a “winner takes all” approach that can disenfranchise half of the population. Meanwhile, a fair maps model will support legislators who focus on responsive legislative policy rather than political gamesmanship. The 2009 non-action by Democrats in Wisconsin serves as a reminder that political leaders should not take the needs of their constituents for granted. As demonstrated in Iowa, the fair maps model will not necessarily mean that partisan shifts in voting patterns will not occur. Our population needs and preferences change over time. But fair maps will allow legislators to keep their focus on the people they represent. And that is the ethical thing to do.

Lee Rasch

Transparency Issues in Wisconsin

December 2022

Transparency in government builds trust. It is a cornerstone of the American republic. Over the years, there have been many legislative steps taken to ensure transparency such as the federal Freedom of Information Act as well as state Sunshine and Open Meetings laws. However, in Wisconsin, there is a legislative “end around” on transparency that is puzzling and problematic. The Wisconsin Knowles-Nelson Stewardship program has a multi-step process for the identification and review of land acquisitions for public preservation. The final steps involve the authorization of funds by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the expenditure approval by the state’s legislative Joint Finance Committee (JFC). It is at this last step of the process where there is a concern. There is a provision in the process that allows a single member of the Joint Finance Committee to anonymously object to the acquisition for a review and stop the process. Furthermore, there is no requirement to specify the reason for the objection.

Consider the circumstances surrounding several recent acquisitions that were stopped at the Joint Finance Committee level. In April 2022, the DNR authorized funding for two projects, the preservation of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff Nature Preserve in Port Washington and the transformative renovation of the west bank of the Milwaukee River in downtown West Bend. Both projects were stopped by an anonymous member of the JFC. No reason was provided for the need for the review. However, in the case of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff Nature Preserve, an unidentified citizen circulated a letter to local officials and the JFC, expressing concern about the public acquisition and made an offer to privately purchase the site for development. The Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff project included privately raised funds which, along with the DNR appropriation, met the agreed land purchase amount. However, it was stipulated by the property owner, Waukesha State Bank, that a September purchase deadline must be met. If the DNR stewardship proposal did not receive JFC approval by the deadline, the bank offer would be withdrawn. Though the objecting JFC member was not identified, it was reported by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that Senator Dewey Strobel had been involved with the two projects, but he was not identified as the anonymous objector. With a September bank deadline looming on the DNR purchase offer, Governor Evers appropriated $2.3 million in federal stimulus funds in late August to allow the acquisition of the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff site, and an additional $2.7 million to fund the West Bend Riverwalk easement acquisition. As a result, the funding for both projects was completed without JFC appropriation approval. Because the JFC action was anonymous, the reasons for the objection cannot be fully determined.

Meanwhile, in late October 2022, the Wisconsin DNR Board approved the expenditure authorization of the remaining portion of the state s largest land conservation project in state history. The board signed off on a $15.5 million conservation easement for more than 56,000 acres in northern Wisconsin.  Once again, an anonymous objection for review stopped the process. Without question, a public acquisition of this size could have questions raised that warrant a review. For example, the proposal commits millions of dollars to secure public access to lands in a part of the state where millions of acres are already in public ownership. However, questions like this should be addressed in public discussions and public actions.

It should be noted that anonymous objections by Joint Finance Committee members has not always been the practice. In 2017, JFC member Senator Howard Marklein (R) objected to the acquisition of the Nelson tract in Dane County. He stated,  I am not opposed to purchasing land for the stewardship program, but too often, the DNR appears to be acting as the realtor, rather than the buyer, by making offers that are at the high-end of the appraisals for each property we consider. We need to negotiate for better prices on behalf of taxpayers.” He added,  The appraised price the DNR decided to work with was nearly $100,000 more than the lowest appraisal! No ordinary citizen would make this offer. This is an ongoing trend that we need to address in the Stewardship Program. Public land is important, but it should not be purchased frivolously.” The questions raised by Senator Marklein were completely in line with the role of the Joint Finance Committee, to scrutinize the integrity and efficiency of projects prior to voting on the appropriation of funds.

However, this kind of open and public review was not conducted in the three 2022 cases cited. The JFC process for approving or not approving stewardship projects, as it’s currently being applied, needs reform. But the transparency issues in Wisconsin do not end here. On December 14th, the Wisconsin Legislative Audit Bureau (LAB), a nonpartisan office of state government, issued a report that Governor Evers lacked transparency in disclosing information about the distribution of pandemic relief funds. The Legislative Audit Bureau said that Evers' Department of Administration did not provide information on which it claimed the governor based his decisions when handing out some $3.7 billion in pandemic aid over the past two years. As reported by PBS Wisconsin, the Evers administration did not turn over any of that information when requested by the audit bureau. Instead, they gave auditors information that was already available online and later said that many spending decisions happened in verbal conversations rather than written documents. The department also told auditors that the decision-making process varied over the two years during which Wisconsin received relief funding. It should be noted that the federal dollars used to fund the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff and West Bend Riverwalk projects were included in the pandemic aid audit by the Legislative Audit Bureau.

Regarding the Joint Finance Committee, none of its deliberations should be secret. Senator Howard Marklein earns a green light for publicly addressing concerns about a stewardship acquisition project. At the same time, there is clearly a red flag for the lack of transparency by the anonymous member of the Joint Finance Committee. The concerns by members of the JFC should be open and publicly reviewed. This issue is further compounded in the Cedar Gorge Clay Bluff project, given the presence of an unidentified offer to purchase. There should openness and awareness of the public role and responsibility of the Joint Finance Committee regarding the intersection of the DNR authorization and the private purchase offer. Clearly, the Joint Finance Committee should remove the anonymous objection provision and conduct their business in an open manner, wherever possible. 

At the same time, the actions by Governor Evers are a major concern. The amounts included in the pandemic relief are massive. State law provides the Governor with the authority to distribute these federal funds. However, the LAB report indicates that the Governor’s unilateral distribution decisions lacked the fiscal integrity that should be associated with the management of public funds. Responsible government should include open disclosure and the checks and balances needed to represent the public interest. Governor Evers’ actions warrant a red flag for the lack of transparency.  Perhaps the actions of both the Joint Finance Committee and the Governor are indicative of the lack of communication between these branches of government. In any case, more transparency is needed. It will be the only way to rebuild trust. 

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