U.S. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner embarrassed himself on the national stage earlier this summer when, gavel in hand, he walked out of a House Judiciary Committee meeting he was chairing because he didn't like the witnesses' testimony.
But the 5th District Republican congressman dragged his reputation, and Wisconsin's collective dignity, into deeper disgrace on Sept. 8 when he joined only 10 other U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill who voted "no" on the $51 billion emergency relief appropriation for the million or so residents harmed in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast.
Sensenbrenner claimed he had cast a vote in favor of "accountability." But it looked so churlish and heartless that Wisconsin political blogger Bill Christofferson, posting at his blog, asked what countless others in Wisconsin were wondering: "Who does Rep. Sensenbrenner represent?"
Good question -- and after a bit of research, I have the answer: Wealthy, white, suburban stamp collectors.
Sensenbrenner, a member of Congress for 27 years, has virtually nothing in common with the now-homeless, jobless and traumatized men, women and children -- predominantly people of color -- whose pained images still fill our television screens.
Members of Congress are as close to royalty as there is in America. Their annual salaries are $158,100, and are supplemented with free airfares and in-district travel allowances, great health insurance and super pensions.
The median per capita income for New Orleans residents is $17,258, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
While 27.9 percent of all New Orleans residents live below the official poverty line, that percentage is just 2.2 percent in Sensenbrenner's hometown of Menomonee Falls.
And while 67.3 percent of the New Orleans population is black, that number for Menomonee Falls is 1.5 percent.
Simply put: there aren't very many people in New Orleans who resemble Rep. Sensenbrenner, or his neighbors in Menomonee Falls or the vast majority of his constituents from northern Waukesha County to Whitefish Bay to Fox Point to River Hills.
And while many Gulf Coast residents have had their meager net worth reduced to zero, Sensenbrenner, 62, is the wealthiest of the state's eight House members.
In May, working with economic disclosure information that members of Congress file publicly, USA Today reported Sensenbrenner's net worth at $9.3 million.
While many Gulf Coast residents had their modest-to-dilapidated and uninsured homes washed away, Sensenbrenner's disclosures show he owns a home in Virginia worth $964,000, a condo in Menomonee Falls valued at $109,000, and a majority interest in a residence in Chenequa that he listed at $524,000.
The contrasts continue: A re-occurring image in Katrina flood coverage is that of wrecked boats and drowned cars; Sensenbrenner is reported to own a $4,000 boat and four automobiles.
And unlike the poor who have been left even worse off by Katrina, Sensenbrenner owns shares of stock in major U.S. companies that are worth millions of dollars, including $803,000 in the securities of the Kimberly-Clark Corp, a multinational paper products company which counts Sensenbrenner's great-grandfather as a founder.
The dividends paid by the K-C shares, and those by another $1.97 million worth of stock in Merck & Co., the pharmaceutical manufacturer, were valued between $30,000 and $100,000 -- dividend disclosures are by range, not in precise dollars -- meaning that at a minimum, Sensenbrenner's earnings from just these two stock holdings exceeded the earnings of more than 46 percent of all New Orleans' households, according to 2000 census data.
If the dividends were at the top of the disclosure reporting range, their total would have been greater than the annual incomes of more than 92 percent of New Orleans households.
USA Today even reported that Sensenbrenner has a stamp collection he values at $70,000. It's hard to imagine that very many Gulf Coast evacuees got out with a single postage stamp. I haven't seen a single shell-shocked Gulf Coast evacuee bemoaning the loss of a stamp collection, or begging a rescuer for a spare stamp album.
Talk about your Two Americas.
Talk about a gulf between people who lost family members as they swam for their lives, and Jim Sensenbrenner, who is drowning in assets from inherited family wealth -- yet would use his political power to keep the poor buried in the Mississippi River mud.
Wisconsin has had plenty of rogues in its political history. The downfall of our most infamous, the obnoxious U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, began when an attorney challenged the red-baiter in a televised hearing with the now-iconic question, "Have you no shame?"
If the same question were posed to Sensenbrenner, the answer would be identical to his vote on the emergency storm funding.
James Rowen is a Milwaukee writer and a former Milwaukee mayoral aide.
The opinions expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect the opinions of OnMilwaukee.com, its advertisers or editorial staff.
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