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Mark Gottlieb

Mark Gottlieb, who resigned in late 2016 as Wisconsin'S transportation secretary, has been talking about Gov. Scott Walker's failure to take care of our state's crumbling transportation infrastructure — and also about the governor ignoring facts in favor of political spin. FILE PHOTO BY PORTAGE DAILY REGISTER

Taking care of the roads is smart politics.

Just ask Michael Bilandic.

Bilandic was elected mayor of Chicago in 1977, after the death of Richard Daley. He was headed for re-election in 1979 when a January blizzard dumped 21 inches of snow on the city. The streets were not cleared quickly or well — especially in African-American neighborhoods — and the crisis lingered for weeks. When voters cast their ballots in a February Democratic primary election, the party machine collapsed and a little-known former city official named Jane Byrne beat the boss.

There’s a lesson there for candidates who are challenging Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker — or who might yet decide to challenge him.

Walker has been running for governor since 2005. He was forced out of the 2006 race by national Republican operatives, who wanted the nomination to go to a better-funded contender, Mark Green. Walker got the message, raised a ton of money, won the party’s nomination in 2010 and then went on to victory in November of that year. He’s been the boss ever since.

But he is vulnerable this year — not merely because a lot of voters are troubled by what the Republican Party is becoming under President Donald Trump, not merely because a lot of voters are tired of the cronyism that Walker has infused into state government, and not merely because Walker’s Foxconn scheme is costing a fortune, forcing homeowners off their land and threatening the environment.

Walker has a more pressing problem: the roads.

They’re a mess.

It wasn’t a snowstorm that created a crisis on Wisconsin’s highways and byways. It was neglect. Under Walker, a refusal to make even minimally adequate investments in highways, public transit, rail lines, harbors and airports has created a crisis.

As in so many areas, Walker has tried to balance budgets by refusing to do the basic work of state government.

Now it's election time and voters statewide are dodging potholes — or, as they’ve come to be known, Scottholes.

There may be a few pundits in Madison and Milwaukee who do not understand what a big issue this is, but anyone who gets around Wisconsin recognizes that the governor’s neglect of the state’s infrastructure could be his greatest political liability.

How vulnerable is Walker? If an honest conservative were to enter the Republican primary and challenge the governor on his many failures, it could get interesting. Just imagine what might happen, for instance, if former Wisconsin Secretary of Transportation Mark Gottlieb were to make a fix-the-roads run against Walker.

A Republican legislator before he took charge of the Department of Transportation, Gottlieb was a Walker ally who served in the governor’s Cabinet for years. But he didn’t fit in. As a transportation engineer by training, Gottlieb understood the need for investment in infrastructure. As transportation secretary, he chaired a commission that determined that the state was failing to make adequate investments in infrastructure. As The Capital Times has reported, the report that Gottlieb and his fellow commissioners produced five years ago had an urgency to it: “In order to maintain a ‘safe and efficient system,’ the commissioners said the state should invest $479.5 million more on an annual basis through 2023 in its state and local highway program, public transit and rail, harbors and airports.”

Gottlieb, who had known Walker for years, assumed that the governor would recognize that it was necessary to follow the commission’s recommendations. When his agency produced a budget request for the needed funding, however, Gottlieb got a rude awakening to Walker’s cynical approach to governing. “It was well understood at that time by the governor and other people in the governor’s office that that’s what we were going to do, that we were going to propose a budget that we felt addressed these issues. That’s what I thought we had been asked to do,” Gottlieb recently told Cap Times writer Katelyn Ferral. “It took the governor less than 48 hours to reject that budget.”

Thus began a period of wrangling between the transportation secretary and the governor who had appointed him. By late 2016, Gottlieb was openly warning legislators that Walker’s budget proposals would cause the state’s roads to deteriorate. At the end of that year, Gottlieb resigned.

But he did not go silent.

He’s been talking about the state’s crumbling transportation infrastructure. "You have to make investments there and we're not even thinking about doing it," Gottlieb told Ferral.

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But he is also talking about the bigger problem with Walker’s approach to governing, recalling how, during those days when he was arguing with the governor over priorities, “We got to a place where the facts were being ignored in favor of political spin.”

Scott Walker has never left that place.

This is a serious problem for Wisconsin. Not just for Democrats but for Republicans. Not just for liberals but for conservatives. The state’s transportation crisis is emblematic of the broader crisis: Walker always puts politics ahead of common sense.

Many Democrats are convinced that this is what all Republicans and all conservatives want. Don’t buy it. Walker remains personally popular among Republicans — with roughly the same approval rating in the most recent Marquette University Law School poll as Trump. But among mainstream conservatives (as opposed to the most extreme right-wingers) his approval rating is down to 74 percent, and among moderates it has collapsed to 30 percent.

Could an honest conservative who appealed to common sense and the “better angels” of the Republican Party mount an issue-based challenge to Walker in a GOP primary? Is it possible that, after a summer of driving on Wisconsin’s broken roads, a campaign to fill Wisconsin’s potholes might prove just as appealing as did Jane Byrne’s campaign to plow Chicago’s streets?

Mark Gottlieb, or someone like him, should give it a try.

A slogan? How about: “Conservatives Don’t Like Scottholes Either.”

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