When an explosion of campaign funding floods a local race

"It is troublesome that more than $300,000 in outside money was spent on a city council election. And even more concerning is that we may fail to recognize who are neighbors really are, as opposed to a stereotypical caricature from a political ad."

La Crosse Tribune, July 3, 2022


The Problems with Partisan Primaries

"A moderate elected official who is willing to work across the aisle may ultimately face a primary election opponent...being 'primaried' for party disloyalty, even if the majority of the constituents stand to benefit from the action." 

La Crosse Tribune, July 31, 2022

The Nature of the American Spirit

Trust is important. The absence of trust can drive our actions of inactions.

La Crosse Tribune, June 12, 2022

Tommy Thompson Receives the Principles In Practice Award

The former Governor of Wisconsin is recognized for his role as Interim President of the University of Wisconsin System.

Isthmus June 17, 2022

Misinformation and a Deadly Turn of  Events.

 There is no question, countering misinformation can be difficult. It  may mean running counter to the beliefs of family, friends and  neighbors. But it is important to take the first step.

La Crosse Tribune, May 8, 2022

How Important Is Truth?

"If we fail to seek truthfulness in elected leaders, we are likely moving on a downward slopeEthical leaders must be truthful and they must be  unifiers if we are to triumph over conflict." 

La Crosse Tribune, April 10,  2022: How Important Is Truth

Ethics in Politics and Business (featuring Lee Rasch)

"This episode puts an exclamation point on the subject of trust and  accountability in the workplace as Lee  Rasch will  discuss trust (or lack  thereof) in the political arena. Listen in to see how historically low levels of  trust in politicians and political institutions can have the potential to negatively  influence trust in the  office." Dr.Andrew Temte, CFA - Balancing Act Podcast

Billings, Rude Selected as 2022 LeaderEthics Award Recipients

Each year, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognizes current or former elected officials who exemplify ethical  leadership in practice...are truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers and committed to serving  the  entire constituency.

Link: La Crosse Tribune, March 30, 2022

Jill Billings and Brian Rude Receive the 2022 LeaderEthics Award 

The legislative careers of Jill Billings and Brian Rude did not overlap, yet they both conveyed a sincere commitment to service throughout their careers...to their constituents and the state. Lee Rasch suggests, "Our political process will be in a much better position with more people like Jill Billings and Brian Rude".       

Link: WKBT News

What Do We Expect? What Do We Accept?    

"If we expect ethical leadership in business, education, health care and other fields, why would we  accept  that it cannot occur in politics? Can elected leaders work to support their entire constituency, not just the  simple majority that voted for them? Can elected leaders recognize that supporters of  the  other political  party are not the enemy, rather they are people with different needs and views? Apparently, Americans believe, in general, these things are possible."

Article by Lee Rasch, La Crosse Tribune, 2-27-22 link: What Do We Expect? What Do We Accept

You Just Don't Know Who to Trust!

 Maria Ressa is a co-recipient for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. Ressa leads a news organization in the  Philippines and has dedicated her career and risked her freedom to promote truth. She is a model for ethical journalism. To state it plainly. Maria Ressa believes facts are important. She summarized the challenges we face in her statement, "Without facts, we can't have truth. Without truth, we can't have trust." Maria Ressa does not accept half-facts and neither should we. Article by Lee Rasch

La Crosse Tribune 1-30-22

Pay It Forward in Politics?

 "We don't know whether elected officials (or anyone else for that matter) will use these examples as a reason to do the right thing for someone else. Yet, over time, the practice of paying it forward does have a measurable positive impact."

published in the La Crosse Tribune 12-26-21, Link: La Crosse Tribune, Pay It Forward

Americans Are Tired of the Gerrymander Dance

"Gerrymandered districts when coupled with a climate of hyper-partisanship is a deadly combination  for  the integrity of the American democracy."

published in the La Crosse Tribune 11-28-21 Link: The Gerrymander Dance

The Third Congressional District Race Should Get The Third  Degree...an  editorial in the La Crosse Tribune, 10-24-21

"If we are committed to demanding ethical leadership in the 3rd Congressional District,  the third degree is warranted in the 2020 election"  

Link: The Third Degree

Common Ground Is Higher Ground...an editorial in the La Crosse Tribune, 9-26-2021

"Think about how much more powerful this could have been if Congressional members  could work  together on behalf of the people of Wisconsin and the country in doing what  they were elected to  do."      

Link: Common Ground Is Higher Ground

Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin...an Open Dialogue

Available via live-stream on the Facebook pages of LeaderEthics-WisconsinDemocracy Found and the Chippewa Herald.

Preview: Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin

Hyper-partisanship Must End for the Good of the Country

"How can we expect good results using a playbook with half the pages missing?"

An editorial on WIZM Radio. Link: As I See It

Chipping Away at the Wall

"Bipartisanship isn’t pretty. It is built on trust. It can be hard to sustain because trust is  fragile."  

La Crosse Tribune 8/1/21 link: Chipping Away at the Wall

Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin

Journalist, Tom Milbourn, led a conversation with panelists Sara Eskrich, Austin Ramirez and Rep. Joel Kitchens regarding the Final-Five Voting legislation being  considered in Wisconsin.

Link: WXOW Final-Five Voting

Representative or Partisan

"As voters, are we able to support the concept of a representative government as the  American founders intended. Are we satisfied (or dissatisfied) with the outcomes of  government? And do we vote accordingly for our elected representatives? Or are we  caught up in the partisan conflict and surrender our vote to political party leaders? Do we expected elected officials to represent us...or handpicked political party leaders? The question remains, as citizens and voters, what do we expect?"

Editorial published in the La crosse Tribune, June 6, 2021 Link: Representative or Partisan

Debating the Facets of Hell

"If leaders contribute to the structural conflict, or fail to take steps to address the  conflict,  the  conflict  will grow, often uncontrollably. In other words, all hell breaks  loose. And in the  resulting  debate, we  can find ourselves arguing over the symptoms of the conflict, essentially 'debating  the facets of hell'. There may be little dialog about how we got here and, more importantly, how we move out of this  dynamic."  Lee Rasch

Editorial published in the La Crosse Tribune, May 2, 2021 La Crosse Tribune, May 2, 2021

Our Electoral Process...a Vicious Cycle

 "While in a vicious cycle, we are not protecting the status quo...rather we are protecting  the worsening of the situation".

Published in the La Crosse Tribune, April 11, 2021 link to article

Rep. Steve Doyle and former Rep. Lee Nerison selected  as the  2021 LeaderEthics Award recipients

WKBT -  LeaderEthics Award Recipients

The La Crosse Tribune Endorses Final Five Voting in Wisconsin

LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is pleased to see support for Democracy Found and the bipartisan-sponsored bill...Final Five Voting. As stated in the editorial by Lee Rasch, "We believe this is a serious effort designed to curtail the hyper-partisanship we are seeing in politics today."

March 21, 2010  Final Five Voting Deserves Support

Caught in the Vortex of Misinformation

Many believe we are in an infodemic, as misinformation on social media becomes  a greater influence. Published in the March 7, 2021  issue of the La Crosse  Tribune.

Caught in the Vortex of Misinformation

Change Starts With Our Expectations

In the January 31, 2021 issue of the La Crosse Tribune, Lee Rasch discusses the importance of establishing expectations for ethical leadership.

Change Starts With Our Expectations

Becoming a Candidate on an Ethical Leadership Platform

"We need to expect ethical leadership from elected officials. It's as applicable in politics as it  is in business, education, healthcare or any other area."...Lee Rasch        

WKBT News 8000 video, ethical leadership

Local candidates asked to show ethical leadership

LeaderEthics-Wisconsin announces the release of the video, "Becoming a  Candidate on an  Ethical Leadership Platform"

WXOW ethical leadership video

It's Never Too Late to Recognize the Right Thing

In this La Crosse Tribune editorial, the focus is on recognizing ethical leadership in practice  as a way of  encouraging elected officials to consider "doing the right thing".

Inspired Minds Podcast: LeaderEthics-Wisconsin

Lee Rasch is engaged in a conversation with Sam Scinta, President and Founder of IM  Education, and Rick  Kyte, Director of the DB Reinhart Institute for Ethics in Leadership at  Viterbo University.

Inspired Minds Podcast

Disinformation on Social Media

Lee Rasch is interviewed by Tyler Job of WKBT regarding concerns about disinformation    in social media  in advance of the November 3rd election.  

Link: Disinformation on Social Media

Bipartisanship is more than just splitting the difference

Lee Rasch provided a guest editorial in the La Crosse Tribune.

Link: La Crosse Tribune Editorial

Bipartisan Ethics

The release of the 2020 Citizen's Guide 2.0 is announced. WXOW October 6, 2020, link: bipartisan message

Resources to Fight Misinformation

WKBT News8000 October 6, 2020, link: helpful resources

The Cap Times Max Witynski & Jessica Christoffer - Wisconsin Watch

One Answer is to avoid liking or sharing suspicious or inflammatory content, according to Lee Rasch, the  executive director of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, a La Crosse, Wisconsin-based nonprofit that promotes  integrity in American democracy."  Wisconsin Watch - Cap Times 

Ethical Leadership Podcast - LeaderEthics-Wisconsin

https://www.spreaker.com/episode/25850600

A Big Breath of Fresh Air

A guest editorial was written by Lee Rasch supporting the announcement of the SafeVote  Wisconsin  Coalition...a bipartisan effort to promote safe opportunities to vote in Wisconsin  elections during the  pandemic. - La Crosse Tribune 7/26/20 A Big Breath of Fresh Air

Poll looks at ethical performance among elected officials at local, state and national level

WKBT 7/17/20 https://t.co/pdL51FaphW

Expect Elected Officials to Collaborate 

La Crosse Tribune 5/24/20 Expect Elected Officials to Collaborate

COVID-19 and the Principles of Ethical Leadership

As elected officials, ethical leaders are truthful, transparent, unifying and representing all constituents...

La Crosse Tribune March 22, 2020 Principles of Ethical Leadership   

WXOW Report: Local Leaders Speak Out About Preventing Election Interference

https://wxow.com/2020/03/11/local-leaders-speak-out-about-preventing-election-interference/

WKBT Report: Local Group Fighting Back Against Social Media Disinformation 

https://www.news8000.com/local-group-fighting-back-against-social-media-disinformation/

Lee Rasch was a guest on the WKOW  program, Capital City Sunday. The topics? Trust in Government and Disinformation on Social Media.

https://wkow.com/capital-city-sunday/https://wkow.com/capital-city-sunday/

Group Calls For Ethical Leadership

http://www.leaderethicswi.org/Presentations/Articles/

As Disinformation Online Grows, WI Group Hopes To Educate Voters 

http://www.leaderethicswi.org/Presentations/Articles/

Wisconsin Organization Aims To Empower Voters Against Disinformation Victor Jacobo

https://www.cbs58.com/news/wisconsin-organization-aims-to-empower-voters-against-disinformation

An Ethical Approach to Leadership

 "Leadership" and "Ethics." Putting those words together in the same sentence may seem  like an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms given today's political climate.

 http://www.leaderethicswi.org/Presentations/Articles/

As Disinformation Online Grows, Wisconsin Group Hopes to Educate Voters Ahead of 2020 Election

New 2020 Citizens Guide Offers Voters Practical Tips On Asking Candidates About Ethics, Spotting False Information Online

By Hope Kirwan - Published: Tuesday, January 1, 2019, 5:55am

https://www.wpr.org/disinformation-online-grows-wisconsin-group-hopes-educate-voters-ahead-2020-election

WXOW La Crosse - Leader Ethics-Wisconsin releases guide to  help citizens advocate for ethical leadership in politics

https://wxow.com/2019/12/04/leader-ethics-wisconsin-releases-guide-to-help-citizens-advocate-for -ethical-leadership-in-politics/

Ethics in politics is behind the push from a Wisconsin group as the 2020 season starts to ramp up.

WEAU - Eau Claire

WKBT News La Crosse - 2020 Citizen's Guide 

LeaderEthics-Wisconsin released the 2020 Citizen's Guide to Ethical Leadership Among Elected Officials. The 2020 Citizen's Guide provides background information and practical suggestions for citizens who wish to heighten the awareness of ethical leadership.

https://www.news8000.com/news/politics/leader-ethics-wisconsin-unveils-its-2020-citizen-s-guide/1148213083

WKBT News - Millennial Panel Conversation Hopes To  Prepare Leaders for Tomorrow

The Leader Ethics-Wisconsin La Crosse Chapter host a panel of next generation leaders. The topic: Ethical  Leadership Among Elected Leaders

https://www.news8000.com/news/millennial-panel-conversation-hopes-to-prepare-leaders-  of-    tomorrow/1123825145

Wisconsin Public Radio - Central Time

Listen to Rob Ferrett, host of the WPR program, Central Time, interview Lee Rasch. The topic is: Wisconsin  Group Working to Ensure Ethics in Government.                                                                                                            

https://www.wpr.org/wisconsin-group-working-ensure-ethics-government

WKBT News: Local group grades the ethical  leadership of  elected leaders

https://www.news8000.com/news/politics/leaderethics-wisconsin-gives-trump-failing-  grades/108935902

La Crosse Tribune - Tribcast: LeaderEthics - Wisconsin

Listen to LeaderEthics-Wisconsin's Executive Director Lee Rasch and Rusty Cunningham  of the La Crosse Tribune as they discuss the principles of ethical leadership, the need for ethics in the political world, and the mission of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin!

https://lacrossetribune.com/7rivers/podcast-leader-ethics-wisconsin-executive-director-lee-rasch/article_6e3ffaf6-767b-5bc2-bd5b-4ae394bb6e97.html?utm_medium=social&utm_source=email&utm_campaign=user-share

WXOW Daybreak Program: LeaderEthics-Wisconsin  Promotes Ethical Leadership among Elected Officials

https://wxow.com/news/daybreak/2019/01/22/verify-your-vote-through-local-non-partisan-group/

Articles

Local View: An Ethical Approach to Leadership

“Leadership” and “ethics.” Putting those words in the same sentence may seem like an oxymoron or a contradiction in terms given today’s volatile political climate.

But Lee Rasch is determined to change both the perception and the reality of that premise. After serving as Western Technical College president from 1989-2017, he is now executive director of LeaderEthics Wisconsin, a nonpartisan organization founded last year that seeks to “promote ethical leadership among elected officials,” he said during a meeting with the Leader-Telegram editorial board. “It seems like we’re trending in the wrong direction,” said Rasch, a Democratic candidate for Congress in 1994 and 1996. “There doesn’t seem to be anyone in Congress standing up for (ethical leadership).”

The organization defines ethical leaders as honest and truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers rather than dividers, and representative of their entire constituencies. LeaderEthics Wisconsin (leaderethicswi.org) has chapters in La Crosse and Madison and is seeking to add Eau Claire to that list. Rasch emphasized that it’s a grassroots effort. “The change is going to happen here,” he said, “not in Washington or even the state Capitol.”

Key concerns for LeaderEthics Wisconsin include the public’s eroding trust in government and a widening gap between Democrats and Republicans as people slide to extreme positions. And the dissemination of faulty news is at the core of those trends. “Disinformation is a bigger issue than campaign finance reform and gerrymandering,” Rasch said. As for the 2020 elections, LeaderEthics Wisconsin cites a report by Paul Barrett of the New York University Stern School of Business that makes some unsettling digital predictions that include:

  • Americans could be manipulated into participating in real-world rallies and protests.
  • Fake videos will be deployed to harm candidates.
  • Iran and China could join Russia as sources of disinformation.
  • Domestic disinformation will prove more prevalent than that from foreign sources.

LeaderEthics Wisconsin developed a citizens guide that provides guidelines and resources on ethical leadership. One suggestion is to not “like” or “share” social media posts that appear “falsified, exaggerated or dated” and encourage others to do the same.

The nonprofit organization also produces a monthly ethics report that’s reviewed by a panel of judges to ensure its content isn’t biased. “Any content that is determined to lack balance, fairness or objectivity will be removed from The Ethics Report prior to distribution,” reads the group’s website. Tom Lister, a former Jackson County Circuit Court judge who retired in 2014, is a member of the panel. Past speakers at events have included Dave Skogen, chairman for Festival Foods, and Brian Rude, a former state legislator who is vice president of Dairyland Power Cooperative. LeaderEthics Wisconsin holds candidate development programs as well.

Rasch also highlighted the work of New York-based Better Angels, which describes itself as “a national citizens’ movement to reduce political polarization in the United States by bringing liberals and conservatives together to understand each other beyond stereotypes, forming red/blue community alliances, teaching practical skills for communicating across political differences, and making a strong public argument for depolarization.”

A more local, personal approach also can have an impact, Rasch said.

“When you see good, ethical leadership,” he said, “compliment them, recognize them.”

Nevertheless, Rasch admitted the organization’s goals will be challenging in today’s environment.

“This is going to be a long haul,” he said.

Maybe so, but it’s certainly a road worth taking.

— Liam Marlaire, assistant editor

As Disinformation Online Grows, WI Group Hopes To Educate Voters

January 2, 2020

LeaderEthics-Wisconsin's New 2020 Citizens Guide Offers Voters Practical Tips On Asking Candidates About Ethics, Spotting False Info Online ... wanted to empower more than just its members to ask candidates about their morals ... group defines ethical leaders as truthful, transparent with public information, unifiers rather than dividers, and willing to represent their entire constituency.

"Those four principles, they're pretty rock solid if you were a senior leader in health care or education or business or the service industry," [LE-W's] Rasch said. "It's the irony that that's true in all of those other occupations except the political arena. And so we have to get people to think 'why would we accept that and why can't we raise that bar?' ... We have to start there, by the local community, and how that can impact the people who are either state legislators or possibly federal, but that's going to take time. Superficial change can happen quickly, but substantive change just simply takes time." Bangor SD's library media guru Olson said adults need better education about the integrity and motivation behind blogospheric info, "If you don't have accurate information, you can't make informed decisions. And if you're making decisions based on inaccurate information you're actually hurting people based on what you're trying to achieve with your political agenda or your civic agenda." https://www.wpr.org/disinformation-online-grows-wisconsin-group-hopes-educate-voters-ahead-2020-election

Group Calls for Ethics in Leadership

A relatively new non-partisan/non-profit group in Wisconsin is working towards promoting integrity in American Democracy by advocating for ethical leadership practices among elected officials. The group, LeaderEthics – Wisconsin, started a La Crosse chapter in September 2018. A Madison chapter has started, and groups in Eau Claire and Racine may be next. The Executive Director for the organization, Lee Rasch, discussed the ethical requirements for business professionals, and the ethical training those going into business leadership can take, but said there is no ethical training for those running for public office. Rasch wants to see ethical behavior become a part of the political arena.

LeaderEthics believes ethical leaders should: 1.) be truthful, 2.) be transparent with public information, 3.) be unifiers, not dividers, and 4.) committed to represent their entire constituency not just a political party. Rasch told The Wheeler Report he believes change comes from a grassroots effort by voters to start holding their elected officials responsible for being ethical, and to start asking different questions of candidates. Rasch said he believes at candidate forums citizens should start asking questions like:

  • Do you support public information efforts to curb the effects of disinformation?
  • Do you feel current slander and libel laws are adequate to address the abuse of fake videos?
  • Do you believe the media should declare when they are: a.) reporting the news, b.) providing commentary, or c) providing entertainment?
  • Recently, several elected leaders faced stories and photos from years past. What are your thoughts regarding transparency in such cases?
  • Do you support legislative actions to curtail election interference from other nations?
  • What steps will you take to work with members of the other party or parties?
  • Efforts like Better Angels and America in One Room have shown that dialogue among citizens can significantly reduce the political divide. Do you support such efforts among your constituents?
  • What steps will you take to meet the needs of your entire constituency, rather than just the simple majority that voted for you?
  • Are you willing to listen to those that may disagree with you?

A report released by Rasch to The Wheeler Report, discusses the impact social media has on the election process. The LeaderEthics report highlights information from the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the Russian Organization, the Internet Research Agency (IRA). The report said more than 30 million Americans liked and shared the fabricated and divisive IRA stories and pages on Facebook and Instagram. Paul Barrett, Deputy Director of the New York University Stern Center for Business and Human Rights projects expanded use of disinformation on social media will play a large role in the 2020 election cycle. The Stern Center projects:

  • Deepfake Videos. Videos that portray candidates saying and doing things they never said or did.
  • Digital Voter Suppression. Includes deception about how or when to vote, calls to boycott the election and attempts to threaten or intimidate potential voters.
  • For-profit Firms. Firms based in the U.S. and abroad which will be hired to generate disinformation.
  • Unwitting American Participation. American, unknowingly, could be manipulated into participating in real-world rallies and protests.
  • Iran and China. These two countries could join forces with Russia as additional sources of disinformation.
  • WhatsApp. May be misused to provide false content.
  • Instagram. May be the vehicle of choice for people who wish to disseminate meme-based disinformation.
  • Domestic Disinformation. Information provided through domestic sources may provide more false content than foreign sources.

Rasch said people who want ethical leadership need to understand the use of disinformation in the electoral process and stop it. Rasch said it is important that people not “like” or “share” everything they see on the internet and on social media for several reasons. The first is it continues the spread of the disinformation, and second it creates privacy concerns leading to data collection by big companies. Rasch emphasized people should use sources like the News Literacy Project to provide updated insight and suggestions to help people identify misinformation.

Rasch said he believes change is likely something that will come over a generation and will require a grassroots effort to make happen. Rasch shared that the events in La Crosse are drawing an engaged and bipartisan crowd, and Rasch added he was excited to see the number of young people showing up at the events.

Rasch, and LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, says the next generation of elected officials are likely going to come from the local level and it is important that people get involved and demand ethical behavior from them. Rasch said, “A lot of people are glad to hear we are going this. People are turned off of politics, therefore disengaged. We need to get people engaged. We need to get young people involved at an early stage.”

Gwyn Guenther



Wheeler Reports, Inc.
Website: thewheelerreport.com
Email: wheeler@thewheelerreport.com
Phone: 608 287-0130
Twitter: @WheelerReports

La Crosse Tribune Editorial

January 31, 2021

La Crosse Tribune Editorial

La Crosse Tribune Editorial

Novermber 1, 2020

La Crosse Tribune Editorial

Kathleen Culver

Kathleen Culver, Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin, spoke on "Truth, Trust and the Future of American Journalism" at the March 2019 La Crosse Chapter event.

graphic graphic

Lee Rasch Provides an Overview of Ethical Leadership

Lee Rasch

Ethical Leadership Overview video by Lee

Brian Rude Presentation at Leader Ethics in Wisconsin

Written remarks, December 11, 2018

When I accepted the assignment to speak at this event, I did not expect it to be challenging to write my remarks. After all, I have been actively involved in politics for 44 years! That’s right, 44 years. I’ve been a volunteer, a campaign manager, a legislative staffer, a legislator, a legislative leader and a lobbyist. But I found the assignment difficult because these are difficult times in the realm of politics and government and it is challenging to encompass all of it in one set of comments.

Of course, one danger of this lofty four-decade perspective is that I have become one of those curmudgeonly old men who sit on a park bench and watch the world go by, saying “things were different when I was in charge. Those were the good old days.”

And of course, we all know that in politics there have never been perfect “good old days.”

If I had given a speech on ethical behavior when I began in politics, almost the entire focus would have been on the dictionary definition that simply says, “doing what is morally right, not wrong.” At that time, ethical behavior was a huge political issue, and it referred to what today might be called graft or financial corruption. It was largely about people taking advantage of their position to make money.

From the time of the Wisconsin Territory, people have questioned the ethics of elected officials.

Start with the selection of the State Capitol. Students of Wisconsin History know that James Duane Doty was the man responsible for Madison being selected as the site of the State Capitol.

Doty had the vision to buy 1,261 acres encompassing what is today downtown Madison. He paid $2,400 for it. He laid out the square and the streets, named it Madison, and set about making it real, making it the capital, and making himself rich.

Just 23 days after Doty's survey, the first territorial legislature met at Belmont, which was serving as the provisional capital. There was a raft load of capital candidates, including Belmont, Green Bay and Milwaukee. After 42 days, Madison won by one vote. It was a compromise; the site was between Green Bay and the lead mines, between the Mississippi and Lake Michigan.

According to records, Doty almost assuredly bribed delegates and their friends and family with town lots in the new Capitol. One member recorded that Doty also offered delegates buffalo robes in the cold, drafty temporary capitol.

Doty, the Wisconsin Historical Society notes in an article, ended up making about $35,000 on the sale of his Capitol site.

Fast forward to another critical part of our state’s history. By the late 1800s, Wisconsin was an economically successful state. And the most successful parts of industry literally owned the legislature. Free rail passes for state legislators assured continued favorable treatment of the rail business. Lumber barons selected the US Senator.

When a 35-year-old district attorney named Bob La Follette met with Republican leader Philetus Sawyer, he was offered a bribe to fix a court case. That was the last straw for La Follete who ran for Congress and set about changing the power structure in the state and changing forever the view of ethical behavior in politics.

But some level of personal graft and corruption continued in politics throughout most of the 20th century. An official 1947 guide for new legislators gave information on free theatre passes, football and basketball tickets and medical care at the University Hospital. Local government officials frequently enjoyed hunting and fishing trips sponsored by road contractors, elected officials often pocketed license or registration fees and representatives at a

So, this level of “ethical corruption” was truly the biggest challenge reformers faced.

Wisconsin formalized ethics laws for state elected officials in 1973. At that time, only four other states had ethics laws at the state level. In 1977, the laws were extended to judges and most state officials and in 1979 local officials. Wisconsin became known nationally for our tough ethics standard of elected officials not being allowed to accept any gifts, not even, it was said, a free cup of coffee.

From time to time, there were violations of these ethics laws, at the state and local level. There were fines and even jail time levied for fishing trips, air fare, sport coats, Packer tickets, personal phone calls and failure to file ethics reports.

But the bottom line is the laws have largely worked. Government corruption, in terms of personal enrichment or personal gifts, has largely been eliminated.

And yet, there’s a feeling today that government has become unethical. It’s not that direct unethical financial behavior... it’s a belief that government officials are not conducting themselves with the standards we would expect from a representative government. This is not a partisan issue, it is a view shared by many across the political spectrum.

I do think it is important to state up front that there are many examples where the system is working well. There are many elected officials at all levels – school board, municipal, county, state and federal – who work very hard to conduct themselves and their business appropriately. There are still examples where bills are carefully thought out and debated, and where they even pass unanimously.

Your LeaderEthics organization has come forward with four key principles of ethical leadership. Those principles are that government leaders should be:

  • Honest and truthful
  • Transparent with public information
  • A unifier rather than divider
  • Willing to represent the collective interests of their constituency

For myself, I accept those tenets of ethical behavior and feel they are important traits for elected officials at all levels. And I would add some of the principles from my time in public office:

  • Although elected from a particular party and a particular philosophy, be ready and willing to work with others who do not share your views if you can find solutions to problems that advance the common good.
  • Respect the process and follow the rules
  • At the end of the day, recognize that in a democracy there are two tenets which should guide all elected officials: first, that the majority always prevails, but equally, that the minority has a right to be heard and respected.

Any objective observer would note that there are problems today with a lack of these core ethical leadership principles by many elected officials. And there’s a feeling by many that our current political system itself has become broken by a lack of these principles and the behavior that follows.

If you just follow the media for a month you could find evidence of ways our system is broken. You would find:

  • Name calling and personal denigration of elected officials by other elected officials
  • One-sided opinions presented as “news” by obviously biased sources
  • A belief by many in politics that for my side to win, the other side must lose
  • An opinion that elected officials should represent their base – the people who voted for them – and forget about the rest of the people in your electoral district
  • A willingness to bend the rules of the process if the rules do not allow them to “win.”
    • Now, as I went through those examples, I bet every single person has in their brain an image of someone who they believe typifies these negative trends that are so destructive of our government system.

      We might all agree the political system appears to be broken, and much of government action unethical. But we could differ wildly on whose fault it is, and who are the real offenders. Much depends on your perspective and your own worldview of politics.

      The fact is, there are many offenders and there is much wrong across the board. Find an example of a violation by an elected Republican and you can match it with similar behavior by a prominent Democrat. There’s plenty of blame to go around.

      So, what are root problems of this dilemma, and what would I propose to fix them?

      I left elected office in 2000. I was beginning to see challenges and issues breaking then that I could see were going to change politics, and governing, for the worse. I did not leave for those reasons, but it made it easy for me to make the decision. I would cite five major challenges that have contributed to this breakdown in civil, honest, ethical behavior:

      • Money – money has been a problem in politics for time immemorial. And it is likely to always be. If you try to take money out of the political process in one place, it inevitably appears in another. What is different in 20 years is the vast amount of money we see spent in races. In my last race in 1996, I spent about $90,000 for State Senate re-election. Today, competitive State Senate races combining all sources of spending, can be in the millions of dollars. When I was in office, individual candidate fundraising was minimal except for the six months before an election. Today, it goes on around the clock. In the past, elected officials felt they needed a base of contributions from their district to show their support. Today, an out-of-state billionaire can provide that much easier and much more effectively. Almost every politician I know says this constant focus on money is the most difficult, demanding and depressing part of the job.
      • Reapportionment – the party in power has always written reapportionment plans that benefit the majority. Both Republicans and Democrats have resisted changing the reapportionment process when they were in power. And district lines are not the whole story -- the minority party has often been able to win elections despite gerrymandering. What is different today is technology is available to draw districts with a fine line to make it highly likely to go to one party or the other. These trends have magnified partisan advantages to the majority and made it exceptionally difficult for the minority to overcome at election time. And, because of the extreme partisan makeup of the districts, more partisan candidates are likely to be the victors in primaries which has an effect overall of making the system more partisan and less cooperative in problem solving.
      • A breakdown of community – When I was in elected office most people watched the same television news and read the same newspaper. They were active in church, veteran, union and civic groups. They went to public schools or parochial schools with deep community roots and all types of people in the desks around them. People of different income levels, experiences, philosophies and career backgrounds interacted in these numerous community arenas. There may not have been political agreement on solutions, but there was a sense of agreement about the problems the community faced. Today, many individuals have withdrawn from that community discussion. They may have no direct tie to a charitable, civic or church group. Their news is from an echo chamber of their choice. They do not know anyone well with a different ethnic or economic background or political philosophy. And many have a wildly different view of what the problems are, let alone the solutions.
      • News sources – Speaking of the news, a major change is the realignment of people’s media sources and credibility. Finding facts, without bias, is becoming very difficult. There’s disagreement on whether facts are truly facts. 24-hour news coverage distorts the importance of disputes and exaggerates reality. To be honest, much of what government did before 2000 was unknown because of a lack of media coverage. It was simply impossible to cover everything happening in government. Today, everything every single elected official does or says is fully available, instantly. And compromise becomes much more difficult with this level of scrutiny.
      • Tribalism – You wondered when I would mention this word. Perhaps it is trite and overused, but we all understand the power that this trend has in determining elections. It is uncanny how much people have divided into tribes and react accordingly. Sen. Bob Corkyn, Republican from Tennessee, puts it this way: “(Support for Trump) is more than strong. It’s tribal in nature. People don’t ask about issues anymore. They don’t care about issues. They want to know whether you are with Trump or not.” I think all of us have run into this – friends or family members who simply have “joined a tribe” and the case is closed. This is occurring on the right and on the left.

      So, what’s the issue with being part of a tribe? My view is that a fundamental principle of this tribal view is that your side is right even when they clearly are not. And the other side is always wrong.

      This view simply does not allow for the prospect of finding a middle. Or for focusing on complex solutions to complex problems. People who seek compromise and solutions are viewed as enemies of the tribe. On the Republican side they are RINOs – Republicans in name only – and the Democrats DINOs – Democrats in name only. They are often chastised by other tribal members as more vile and evil than even the members of the other tribe! David Brooks, the New York Times, calls it “cult conformity. The situation looks like the religious wars that ripped through Europe after the invention of the printing press,” Brooks says, “except our religions now wear pagan political garb.”

      The tribal view is hardened by members only hearing their own media, only talking to those who share their view, and believing only the leaders of their tribe speak the truth. In the extreme, the tribe even picks which facts are facts and which are not.

      Defenders of this view say traditional bipartisan government has failed them. One of my former colleagues observed that those of us in government in the past may have misread how unhappy the public was with government. He said we thought they wanted a bipartisan government that arrived at consensus solutions. And he said it is clear the public – or at least a lot of them – view this today as not only a failed approach, but as exacerbating the problems we face. They want a consistency in message and action with no compromise and no consensus.

      Defenders of tribalism also note that at critical times in our history, leaders saw the failures of consensus and brought about radical change and that these moments of revolution were some of the proudest in our nation’s political history. They note that consensus government supported slavery, and the Republican Party was created to destroy it; and a century later the consensus government sanctioned the civil rights of blacks to be routinely abridged, and Martin Luther King and a host of warriors stepped outside of the consensus to bring that sad legal chapter to an end.

      I do not advocate that people forget their principles or fail to use their constitutional right to state their beliefs in a solution to a problem. And I do acknowledge there are times when one most stand for a principle regardless of the political cost.

      But I advocate a return to a belief that we can work toward solutions within the framework of our ideology given the dynamic pluralism of our society and the government structure which is built to encourage compromise and cooperation. Even when you have principles, compromise is not a bad thing if it moves the outcome your way, even a little.

      Gilbert and Sullivan noted in the musical Iolanthe that one of the issues of government is that members of parliament must leave their brain and cerebellum outside and vote just as their leaders tell them too.

      In American politics, our partisan tradition has never been so strong as to require straight party-line voting. But modern tribalism, does in fact require members to check their brain at the door. It does not encourage independent thought, or a creative search for solutions. It only requires absolute loyalty.

      My daily work at Dairyland Power is on behalf of the electric cooperative movement. We came about through an act of the President and Congress way back in 1935. In a world where most businesses and groups have become more and more partisan and more part of a tribe, we fight to stay bipartisan and interact with elected officials of both parties.

      There are times Republicans best represent our interests, and there are times when Democrats best represent our interests. And there are many, many times, where a compromise between the two parties has allowed our movement of powering communities and empowering members at the end of the line to move forward. We do not believe in being part of either major partisan “tribe.”

      It could be we succeed at this because cooperation is in our DNA, but truthfully, it is also a smart business model for us. We have the advantage of numbers when we need to call on people for help. It has worked for us again and again. But it is increasingly difficult to follow this approach because elected officials are always trying to find out if you part of their “tribe.”

      Hidden in our success, however, is a gem which I think is the answer to the tribalism which pervades our system, and the gridlock it can bring about. The answer is that we approach our elected officials the old-fashioned way…. we tell them what we are about, educate them on the issue we face, and sincerely ask for their help. We often bring 50 or 60 cooperative members to Washington, or several dozen to a Madison office, and we share our views and lobby for change.

      Polls show less respect for lobbyists than almost any other profession. Somewhere around used car salespeople. That’s tragic, because lobbying is really an important part of the governing process, guaranteed by the First Amendment. It is the right of an organization or an individual to talk to elected officials and tell them how legislative proposals will impact them. It’s education.

      And if done right, lobbying can still work. We continue to press our issues and causes this way.

      This old-fashioned way of impacting government works, but we know today’s elected officials feel the pull of the tribe. They are cautious about stepping out of their secure zone on issues. The tribe dominates their thinking and stokes their fears.

      I have had countless conversations with officeholders of both parties who indicate privately they wish they could work at solutions, at consensus, at problem solving. Some of these people would be known as radical conservatives or ultra-liberals. They feel, however, constrained by the tribe. They know that thanks to money, media, reapportionment, breakdown of the community and their tribe, if they waver they will be defeated.

      They are good people. They are smart, principled, and have the best interest of their country at heart. But they are afraid to be bold and buck the tribe to represent the collective interests of their constituency and be a unifier, not a divider.

      The challenge I have for the people in this room, and for those who care about politics, is that we need to build a new movement that supports politicians who can reach across the divide and work to solve problems.

      If this country would develop a new movement that specifically supported elected officials who would work for consensus, politicians would respond. My fondest wish is that a new national news network would be launched with an emphasis on consensus building and problem solving. It might change the public square debate and support candidates who have that agenda.

      Those who would lead such a movement need to be careful, however, to avoid the same traps that we seek to overcome. It is so easy to condemn one elected official and overlook the same types of sins committed by another. It is so easy to have one standard of behavior for one issue and a totally different standard for another.

      LeaderEthics is a great initiative because we are coming together to talk…. talk about what we ask for and expect in our elected officials and how we can raise the bar to go there. Conversation is what is missing between the tribes. And this initiative inspires conversation.

      I believe there will come a time when we will turn from the negatives which are making our government such a divisive and ugly place today. I believe we will see a return to civility and discussion of issues and finding ways to achieve common ground. And I believe you are here tonight, spending your time to think about making the world a better place, are where it can begin. I encourage you to continue that support.

      In the end, the four principles of this organization are worth fighting for and striving for in our community, state and nation:

      • Be honest and truthful
      • Be transparent with public information
      • Be a unifier rather than a divider

      And

      Step up and ask your elected officials to strive for this kind of ethical behavior. And sometime soon, we will see change in how our elected officials do conduct themselves.

      Brian Rude Graphic

Lee Rasch spoke at the Rotary Club of La Crosse regarding the importance of promoting ethical leadership among elected officials.

There was a good discussion at the Community Conversation.

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La Crosse Chapter Kickoff

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Community Conversation

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