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Editorial cartoon (1/18/2017)

It's often been said that the man behind the marionette we know as state Sen. Steve Nass, the Walworth County Republican, is his spokesman and chief of staff, Mike Mikalsen.

Mikalsen has spent his career at the public trough making Nass look like an eloquent and attentive watchdog over those nasty and probably crooked left-wingers at the University of Wisconsin, the state institution of higher learning that many consider among the best in the world.

An unabashed supporter of Donald Trump, the former interim president of the village of Cottage Grove has posted on his Facebook page a CNN clip of tearful Hillary Clinton supporters as they followed the election results on Nov. 8. "I could watch this clip forever," he chortles.

And he acts a bit like his favorite Republican bully whenever he describes what he sees as an out-of-control university that coddles left-wing professors and offers politically correct courses for which heads ought to roll. He's been with Nass for more than 20 years now and in recent years has become the go-to guy for local right-wing talk show hosts like Vicki McKenna and the more moderate Mitch Henck.

It's already been more than 10 years since the weekly paper Isthmus did a profile of Nass, trying to get a handle on the then state representative's war on the Madison campus. The reporter was struck even then by Mikalsen dominating the interview while Nass sat with his arms folded, occasionally nodding his head in agreement with his aide.

"He sputters and growls and waves his arms," Vikki Kratz wrote of Mikalsen, and then went on to report that the Nass chief of staff "also makes more inflammatory comments than his boss."

In explaining Nass' attempt back in 2005 to make faculty follow codes of conduct, including not making "anti-American statements," Mikalsen retorted, "Part of the issue is we have foreign-born professors. Those professors say things."

Oh, for sure. They also win Nobel prizes.

But Mike Mikalsen is one of those hundreds of staffers employed by the Wisconsin Legislature to assist allegedly full-time legislators who have oh so much work to do sitting around Madison. Nass, elected to the state Senate in 2014 after serving 24 years in the Assembly, now has three staffers all to himself.

That gives the crew all kinds of time to dream up ways to keep their names on TV and in the newspapers — and the more outrageous their pronouncements the better. Nass, for instance, famously derided Madison a few years back for painting boxes on the pavement at dangerous city intersections to keep cars and bikes separated. Nass' office churned out a press release calling the markers the brainchild of "liberal extremists in Madison who hate cars and think everyone should bike to work" and suggested he was going to introduce legislation to outlaw such outrages. Apparently conservatives don't ride bikes.

That's why for some 34 years of writing this column, I keep calling for a return to a part-time Legislature to keep these people out of town for as long as possible. And then perhaps their staffs could go find honest work instead of dreaming up schemes to make hardworking and taxpaying folks they don't like miserable.

But this constant attack on academic freedom at the university is serious stuff. There was a time when a rogue legislator or two would focus on professors not working hard enough or teaching classes that bothered their sensibilities, but they were marginalized by colleagues for the nut cases they were. 

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In today's world, though, the zealots who see a "liberal elite" behind every tree have complete control to bring down the university and every other institution they so piously despise. They not only complain about classes and policies at the UW, but threaten to take away money if the UW doesn't comply with their prejudices. And they aren't marginalized anymore — they're part of this Legislature's mainstream.

The irony, as UW professor Donald Moynihan of the La Follette School of Public Affairs pointed out, is that the legislators accusing the UW of stifling free speech because the school recognizes the harm that boorish and racist behavior can cause, are the same ones forbidding free speech by insisting that certain classes shouldn't be taught and certain professors should be fired.

This being the 100th anniversary year of the founding of The Capital Times, I've been looking back at some of our history.

What I do know is this: The biggest bully in the history of Wisconsin — Joe McCarthy — would be right at home with these people.

Dave Zweifel is editor emeritus of The Capital Times. dzweifel@madison.com and on Twitter @DaveZweifel

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