By Doug Hissom Special to Published Oct 24, 2007 at 5:14 AM
Students haven't been historically known as great political contributors, unless, of course, you count volunteer labor to fold envelopes, take people to the polls, hand out literature and do other grunt work. (In the case of certain politically-connected students in Milwaukee, that grunt work also included slashing tires on opposition vehicles in 2004.)

But a recent Wisconsin Democracy Campaign investigation found a unique class of politically-active students in the Badger State -- those that gave some $86,243 to state candidates between 2002 and June 2007. But it wasn't a massive outpouring of pennies coming from dorm-room jars, it was 177 people listing themselves as "students."

And, even more curious, 12 of 31 students who gave more than $1,000 to their favorite candidates, did so at the same time their parents gave the same candidates massive donations, the campaign finance watchdog group found.

It's not a new trick in politics for the wealthy to use their offspring and extended family to fund pols -- and gain the influence that comes with it -- it's just easier to document these days.

State law, however, prohibits family members from making contributions on behalf of other family members. It's a practice that caused Kenosha businessman and casino-owner-wannabe Dennis Troha his downfall, forcing him to plead guilty to misdemeanors after funneling money to Gov. Jim Doyle's campaign.

And some of the students' parents had prominence of their own. Topping the list was Vikram Saini, of Elm Grove, who gave Doyle $5,000 on March 8, 2002 -- the same day his father, Dr. Bhupinder Saini of Advanced Pain Management also gave $5,000.

Troha's son, Matthew, of Kenosha, was near the top as well, giving $4,000 to various candidates, including $500 to Doyle.

Matching Matt Troha at the $4,000 level was David Sensenbrenner, son of former Madison Mayor Joe Sensenbrenner. The Sensenbrenners, including wife/mother Mary Ellyn, gave the bulk of their contributions to former gubernatorial and attorney general candidate Kathleen Falk.

Other heavy student donators include:

  • Courtney Oldenburg, daughter of former TV newswoman Melodie Wilson and Milwaukee businessman Wayne Oldenburg, the latter of whom contributed $2,500 to GOP gubernatorial candidate Mark Green, the same day her dad gave Green $5,500.
  • Several students named Walsh -- John, Mary and Michael -- who each gave Doyle $2,000.

Doyle topped the list as a favorite among students, getting $26,185 in contributions. Second was Gary Baier, a GOP Senate candidate who got $6,000 from six students in two families whose parents also gave to Baier on the same day.

Cop commission quandary: Michael Tobin was dealing with a two-edged sword this week. The soon-to-be-former Milwaukee assistant city attorney who will be executive director of the Fire and Police Commission starting Nov. 4 was in a unique position during budget hearings in front of the Common Council's Finance Committee this week.

On the one hand, Tobin claimed to have no dealings with the commission's proposed 2008 budget, while on the other, he found himself defending its plans. He told aldermen that he would "appreciate some latitude" in running the commission under the 2008 budget since he had nothing to do with its writing.

But he defended parts of the budget after aldermen repeatedly questioned him on the need for the so-called "Integrity Unit" -- which would cost about $300,000 -- while at the same time the department already has an internal affairs investigations unit. The Integrity Unit would focus on citizen complaints while internal affairs focuses on police misconduct; sort of a blurry line of distinction some aldermen suggested.

The commission is supposed to write the rules and oversee the unit. Tobin says the Integrity Unit would be proactive, which was quickly countered by aldermen that another proposed revamp -- the "Early Intervention Unit" -- was supposed to be the proactive one.

New positions proposed for the commission would allow research policy specialists and an auditor to, in part, help reopen Police Department internal affairs investigations. Two more commission members are also proposed. Mayor Tom Barrett's proposed budget increases the Fire and Police Commission's total budget some $271,000, to about $920,000.

A police union representative said four new positions in the department for the Integrity Unit were unnecessary and the money could be used elsewhere. Unions have also challenged terms of the Early Intervention Unit.

The Early Intervention Unit would identify and track potentially problematic officers.

Ald. Michael Murphy said the plan sounded like it was adding layers of bureaucracy. Ald. Joe Davis wondered why something hasn't happened sooner with the Early Intervention Unit since the city spent $500,000 to get it up and running, yet no operating rules are in place.

"We assumed the Fire and Police Commission ... could get that up and running. ... Failure is not an option," he told Tobin.

The hard-line questioning -- especially from Davis -- comes at a time when issues are being raised over the structure of the commission and who should hire the next police chief. Common Council President Willie Hines asked that the state allow aldermen to change the commission.

Police Chief Nan Hegerty enjoyed a position similar to Tobin's, since she's leaving next month for retirement. She told the committee she submitted a "status quo" budget and would let the next chief decide most staffing matters.

Much of the hearing had frustrated aldermen asking specific questions regarding staffing, crime solving and the status of various programs.

And if it seemed they got obfuscation for answers they weren't alone.

"It's not that the clearance rate is down, it's that the counting is wrong," Hegerty told the committee regarding crime fighting statistics. "This system is a nightmare."

And when asked why police service assistants haven't been hired when they were supposed to be in place by the middle of this year, police reps told the committee that it was the Department of Employee Relations fault. It was predicted that the positions -- which are to provide desk services at police stations so that officers can hit the streets -- could be in place by spring.

Taylor hits the Web: Most of it is under construction and the rest is quite bland, but state Sen. Lena Taylor has a Web site pushing her campaign for Milwaukee County exec: Taylor announced her campaign earlier this month amidst months of speculation as to who the Democrats would run against incumbent Scott Walker. Computer consultant Joe Klein is the third declared candidate in the race.

On the site, Taylor declares, "With inexcusable cuts to our court system, detrimental eliminations to public transportation that make it difficult for our children to get to school and parents to get to work, along with closing parks that people from all walks of life depend on for recreation, we as Milwaukee county residents deserve better. ... Just as I have as a state legislator, I will work hard to: Reform an unrepaired pension system; Restore fiscal accountability; Fight for our fair share of property tax relief from Madison; and Maintain services that we expect from County Government."

Budget no real compromise: So it took more than 100 days to pass a state budget. After all, we were told the Democrats wanted to tax the heck out of everybody and the Republicans didn't want to raise a cent in taxes. Well, as it turns out the compromise cut exactly one-tenth of a percent (0.1 percent) from Gov. Jim Doyle's proposed budget, which hit the Legislature in February, according to the Legislative Fiscal Bureau. That includes a bucketful of new fees that people will find out about when they go to register their vehicles or re-register their semi-trucks, among others.

State Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) is one legislator that won't votie yes on the plan. "One must assume the state sought advice from out-of-work financial experts in the sub-prime mortgage industry," he says.

Doug Hissom Special to
Doug Hissom has covered local and state politics for 20 years. Over the course of that time he was publisher, editor, news editor, managing editor and senior writer at the Shepherd Express weekly paper in Milwaukee. He also covered education and environmental issues extensively. He ran the UWM Post in the mid-1980s, winning a Society of Professional Journalists award as best non-daily college newspaper.

An avid outdoors person he regularly takes extended paddling trips in the wilderness, preferring the hinterlands of northern Canada and Alaska. After a bet with a bunch of sailors, he paddled across Lake Michigan in a canoe.

He lives in Bay View.