Walker appoints, promotes, demotes lobbyist’s son

Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, seen here on school picture day

Is this the face of a machine politician who unquestioningly executes whatever obscure directives party apparatchiks give him? Um, yeah—now that you mention it, it kind of is. Especially if you mention it along with the news that Scott Walker appointed 27 year-old college dropout Brian Deschane to a $65,000-a-year supervisory position in the Wisconsin Bureau of Licensing and Regulation. Deschane has no management experience, only a short history of full-time employment and two drunk driving convictions, but he is the son of Jerry Deschane, head of the Wisconsin Builders Association, which sent Walker over $120,000 in contributions during the 2010 campaign. Two months after he was hired at L&R, Brian Deschane was promoted to a supervisory position in the Wisconsin Commerce Department, where he got a 24% pay raise. Then a bunch of articles came out about that, and Walker demoted Deschane to his earlier job. He’ll also be in charge of Walker’s exploratory team for the 1882 election.

Indicators suggest it’ll be a tough one. Even though returning Deschane to the original position he was unqualified to hold—which pays him more than twice the salary of, just to pick an example, a public school teacher—completely solves the problem, Walker might still take some heat. The college-leaving, drunk-driving, dad-working-for Deschane was able to secure his high-ranking government position through his own merit the same legislation that eliminated collective bargaining rights for state employees. It turns out that law also contained a provision that “converts 37 top agency attorneys, communications officials and legislative liaisons from civil service positions to jobs appointed by the governor.” As any 147 year-old will tell you, that’s the kind of thing that can cost an otherwise perfectly anglo governor an election.

Until the late 1870s, virtually all civil service jobs were filled by appointment, via what came to be known as the patronage system. Machine politics ruled the 19th century, particularly at the state and local levels, and cushy jobs like “sanitation director” or “police commissioner” or “guy who makes sure that underground storage tanks don’t slowly poison the groundwater throughout Wiconsin” were often given as rewards to wealthy donors and political operatives. It was a great system, provided you were among the 1% who could afford to buy a taxpayer-funded job with political contributions and not the 99% who, you know, needed to use the sewer.

The patronage system was not so much a double-edged sword as a rusty, wobbling sword with a dick for a handle, since it simultaneously encouraged political corruption and stocked municipal service departments with incompetent managers. As a result, civil service exams and competitive hiring became a major priority for populist movements, which sought to break the power of the machines. This push for reform culminated in two achievements: a near civil war within the Republican Party of the day, and the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, which required that government jobs be filled on the basis of merit.

Pendleton was poorly enforced and applied only to federal jobs, but it’s still a milestone on the road to modern American government. In addition to ensuring that public services be something more than resumé items for people’s drunk sons, it undermined a significant wall between American governments and the American people. Back when the majority of state employees were appointed from the small minority of people wealthy enough to put a winning candidate in office, the American government bore little resemblance to the American people. Competitive civil service employment made government bureaucracies look less like annexes of political party offices. Government became less of a closed system and, by definition, more democratic.

But that was the late 19th century, when liars were beaten publicly with canes. Now they are soberly quoted in objective newspapers like the Pierce County Herald, whose headline “Walker demotes appointee who happens to be son of political contributor” conveys its charitable approach to corruption. Both Walker and the elder Deschane deny that their close, one-guy-gives-money-to-the-other relationship had anything to do with Brian Deschane’s appointment. That should be good news for twentysomething college dropouts with a couple DWIs on their records across the state. Anybody can be sanitation commissioner now.

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