Friday, December 9th, 2016

Democrats have bad history on drunk driving

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Waukesha Freeman 1/16/2014 Page A5 Opinion
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Democrats have bad history on drunk driving

Dems need to get serious before attacking Schimel

It was hard to come back from vacation in Hawaii. I missed the coldest weather of the year to enjoy free mai tais and other funny tropical drinks. Why not? I wasn’t driving.

While I was away, we learned two candidates for state attorney general have drunk driving convictions in their backgrounds. Waukesha County District Attorney Brad Schimel received a drunk driving citation in 1990. Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne was cited for not maintaining absolute sobriety as a minor driver.

Fortunately neither of them hurt anyone.

There is a difference of opinion among the declared candidates of how to deal with the drunk driving problem in Wisconsin. Schimel is opposed to making the first offense a criminal offense.

One opponent, Democratic state Rep. Jon Richards, wants to make drunk driving a key issue in the campaign. He criticized Schimel for not being more forthcoming.

In the small world of drunk driving politicos, you have to appreciate the irony of any Democrat attacking Schimel on this issue.

Richards was among the Democratic members of the state Assembly who refused to kick out state Rep. Jeff Wood after he was arrested for the fifth time for driving under the influence. The Democrats, including Richards, later got Wood out of jail to vote on last-minute contracts with state employee unions just before Gov. Scott Walker took office.

Shortly after Richards announced his candidacy, he was praised by former state Democratic Party spokesman Graeme Zielinski. Zielinski was arrested last year for driving while intoxicated for the third time. No comment was made by Richards regarding Zielinski’s arrest, subsequent soft treatment by a Democratic prosecutor, or Zielinski’s endorsement.

Zielinski’s former boss state Democratic Party Chairman Mike Tate also criticized Schimel for “omitting a key fact,” according to The Associated Press. Tate has refused to answer my questions regarding Zielinski’s sobriety while he worked for the Democratic Party, including whether Zielinski had been drinking when he falsely accused former County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus of trying to rig the Waukesha vote totals to benefit state Sen. Alberta Darling in a recall election.

The office of Jefferson County District Attorney Susan Happ, a Democrat, reduced the charges against Zielinski to a first offense because of clerical issues regarding one previous arrest and because the other arrest was too old. But Happ’s office went even further in their leniency by dropping the charges of driving with long-expired Texas license plates and the failure to keep in his driving lane.

Happ, of course, is also considering a run for the Democratic nomination for state attorney general.

It wasn’t that long ago that former Attorney General Peg Lautenschlager, also a Democrat, was arrested for drunk driving after driving her state vehicle off the road. The subsequent revelations of possible misuse of the state vehicle for political purposes drove her (pun intended) from office.

Instead of worrying about one-time drunk driving incidents that happened 20 years ago, Democrats should take a more sober look at their own recent history. It does not suggest seriousness about the problem of drunk driving.

I am not going to pretend that Republicans are innocent when it comes to drunk driving. When a rumor floated that former District Attorney Paul Bucher might run for the state Assembly, I joked in a column that the first thing he would want to do if elected is have his colleagues take a Breathalyzer.

I’m dreading the day when I’ll read in the newspaper how some member of the state Legislature, after having a few too many in the bars of Madison, killed someone on the roads. It seems almost inevitable.

I’m skeptical that the drunk driving records of Schimel and Ozanne will hurt them. This is Wisconsin, the only state in the country that refuses to criminalize a first offense for drunk driving. We were also one of the last states to raise the drinking age to 21.

For some politicians, especially up north, having a drunk driving conviction would be a badge of honor. We shouldn’t be proud of this but it’s part of the drinking culture of Wisconsin.

What we should look for now is not what the candidates for state attorney general did when they were young. We should be looking to what the candidates are proposing to do about drunk driving in the future.

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://www.wigderson.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

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