Wisconsin, What a Race
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
For absolute intrigue, fascination, and sheer fun, the best race of this mid-term election just might be the contest for Wisconsin’s secretary of state, an office most people in that state are not even sure exists. Forget Messrs. Foley and Hastert. Forget Messrs. Cuomo and Pirro. Forget Messrs. Lamont and Lieberman. The Wisconsin race pits a neophyte Republican against an incumbent Democrat with the most famous political name in the state.The Democrat, Doug LaFollette, has held that office practically unopposed for close to three decades. But it turns out the challenger, Sandy Sullivan, has some interesting connections of her own.
If Wisconsin has a quirky side, it may stem from its super-clean politics, its self-deprecating humor (witness the number of styrofoam cheese heads in the stands at sporting events), and its strong sense of dynasty — both political and football. In this race, both come together in one harmonic convergence … in a manner of speaking. Mr. LaFollette is a distant cousin of “Fighting Bob” LaFollette — the progressive congressman, governor, senator, and presidential candidate in 1924 who carried 17% of the national vote and one state — Wisconsin. Bob LaFollette set the tone for Wisconsin’s progressive tradition. In 1957, a senate committee led by John F. Kennedy named Mr. LaFollette one of the five greatest senators of all time.The Lafollette name in the Dairy State is equal to Kennedy in Massachusetts, Stevenson in Illinois, or Long in Louisiana, even though “Fighting Bob” has been dead since 1925. Next to LaFollette, the only name that carries more weight is Lombardi (as in Vince).That’s because as strong as the LaFollette hold might be, it is not nearly as strong as the fanatic, almost religious following Wisconsinites have for the Green Bay Packers — especially the Packers of the Lombardi era (1959-1968). Throughout the state, church services are still held early on Sundays when the team plays. The wait for season tickets now exceeds 2,000 years and Packer flags fly next to the stars and stripes in front yards. It is religion, pride, and patriotism all rolled into one. And it’s pretty wholesome. On the first day of training camp, every Green Bay Packer chooses the bicycle of a waiting crowd of admiring youngsters to ride it across the field. In other professional franchises, players might choose a cheerleader.
So imagine the upsurge in interest when Republican candidate, Sandy Sullivan, a former model who has never run for office, decides to take a crack at Mr. LaFollette. At the same time, Ms. Sullivan has come out with a tell-all book about her very close relationship with some of those same fabled Packers of yesteryear (sort of a Jim Mc-Greevy in reverse or better yet, imagine Bill Clinton announcing on national television: “I *did* have sex with that woman … and *that* woman … and *that* woman”). Ms. Sullivan, the author of “Green Bay Love Stories and Other Affairs” and still shapely at 65, writes about the team and her encounters with Packer linebacker Dan Currie (yes) and the “Golden Boy” of the team, Paul Hornung (yes) and Packer legend Don Hutson (no — he was way too old at the time). Bart Starr, the former quarterback, Hall of Famer, and leader of that team has campaigned for her. Tommy Thompson, the former governor and secretary of health and human services has endorsed her. The race has received national and international attention — including the Guardian in London. Ms. Sullivan’s website, which received an average of 150 hits a day recorded 86,000 in a two day period last week. The challenger, it seems, has momentum.
Ms. Sullivan, now a widow, is an entrepreneur. She has started small and successful businesses on her own including three tanning salons bringing in over one million dollars in revenue and, of course, is a published author. She is feisty, energetic, and refreshingly honest. Although Ms. Sullivan insists her book is not about her love affairs but the love affair Wisconsin had for those Packers, she stands by her past with forthrightness and pride. “A lot of people think it’s the whole team that I went out with,” says Ms. Sullivan.”We were kids and we were having a great time rollicking. I’ve always kept a very strong moral compass and I was always a lady.” One former paramour, Paul Hornung, agrees. He wrote the forward to her book.As far as her critics are concerned, she suggests they “look in their own closets.”
The race has been further amplified by Mr. LaFollette’s aloofness and questions about why this office even exists. Ms. Sullivan insists that her opponent has held office all this time simply because of his last name and hasn’t done that much while he’s been there. She has a point — the office of secretary of state has lost most of its importance over the past three decades. Its main duties are storing and preserving state records and affixing the state seal to official documents. It pays $65,000 a year and the race has cast a spotlight on why a clerk couldn’t accomplish these tasks with a lot less fuss. That theory was enhanced when Mr. LaFollette declined to debate a primary opponent (Scot Ross who once weighed 500 pounds) because, he said, there were no issues. “Believe me,” Ms. Sullivan told reporters, “if I am elected, people will know there is a secretary of state.” No doubt. If elected, she promises to work for businesses and industries, cut bureaucracy, and become the chief enforcer of ethics and laws for the state.
This local race also focuses attention on the political reality of iconic names that exist everywhere and is a phenomenon rarely discussed. Whether it’s Powell in Harlem or Goldwater in Arizona or Jackson on the south side of Chicago, voters tend to cast ballots for the familiar. In New York, a second generation Cuomo is on the ballot again. In Rhode Island, a Kennedy. And if Hillary Clinton wins the presidency in 2008, America will have gone from Bush to Clinton to Bush to Clinton. It’s not just totalitarian states like North Korea where power stays in the family. Voters in democracies have a strong sense of ancestry as well. Like many election seasons and this one, our politics have been fraught with scandal, bitterness, and angst. But in Wisconsin there’s been at least an effort to add something long missing … a sense of humor.
Mr. Kozak, a New Yorker by choice, was born and raised in Wisconsin and is a frequent contributor to the New York Sun.