Friday, April 20, 2012

Don't Call it a Comeback (No, Seriously, Please Don't)

So the big local news this afternoon is that Paul Esslinger will be running for state assembly.

Esslinger spent eleven years on the city council, the last two as mayor, and during that time he provided voters with countless examples of just how uniquely unqualified he is to conduct public affairs. Here are just a few examples from his disastrous first year as mayor. The only real aspiration, plan or vision for the city he ever stated publicly was the creation of a Bay Beach-like amusement park at Menominee Park. His only accomplishment of note was his small role in the renovation of Pollock Pool.

More often than not Esslinger used his office to air personal grievances. He will campaign as a small government conservative on a mission to cut spending, but this is the same guy who demanded the city pay his legal bills when he got into a scuffle, and was subsequently investigated by the DOJ, with a fellow council member. He pretty much demanded the city pay for the fire truck he bought as a "donation." Then there was the Great Sidewalk Debate of 2007 in which Esslinger basically forced the residents of a subdivision in Oshkosh to install sidewalks in their neighborhood and pay for it too. We could go on, but suffice it to say that ideological consistency usually plays second fiddle to his own sense of entitlement. Here are a couple examples: 1.) Esslinger changed his tune on various "pub fees" once he started running his own tavern. 2.) At the around the same time, Esslinger flip-flopped on a proposed downtown parking lot from which several competing pubs down the street from his own establishment stood to benefit. These are indicative someone who lacks the ability to thinks about the ramifications of his actions beyond himself.

Esslinger has a habit of even screwing up good-natured gestures, like the time he gave his friend and council member Dennis McHugh an envelope full of cash as a "retirement gift" during a council meeting and provided a very poor explanation as to why. Even McHugh looked a bit uncomfortable accepting the gift at the time. This wasn't just an instance of Esslinger being very oblivious. The cash was the leftover money collected by McHugh's friends to pay for a full-page ad in the local paper thanking McHugh for his years of service. There are very serious and legitimate questions as to the legality of the gift. There was no question that the whole episode looked sketchy.

He has a habit of watching opportunities to provide leadership pass him by. At times he's misused his office for political purposes. He has an inability to choose his battles. His relationship with the local media is abysmal. He has a habit of executing political duties vindictively and without class.

But Esslinger's most troubling quality is his almost pathological craving for acceptance. It's his defining characteristic. Rarely did a meeting go by during the decade he was on the council when Esslinger did not give a speech or cast a vote that appeared to beg for the approval of his friend and political mentor Dennis McHugh. People with business before knew that the quickest way to win Esslinger's support was to flatter, stroke his ego and, above all else, make him feel important. A lot politicians suffer from this desire, and in some this appetite for validation can be an asset that motivates them to do big things. But in others, and Esslinger definitely falls into this camp, it's a liability that leaves them susceptible to manipulation from folks like lobbyists and party leaders.

McHugh retired at the end of Esslinger's first year as mayor and in the second half of his only term Esslinger actually showed signs of maturity. There were far fewer distractions, much less grandstanding, and actual moments of genuine reflection and courage. Take, for example, his vote to approve a use permit for Oshkosh's first mosque. Even though the council meeting at which the vote took place was packed with very vocal supporters of the measure, it's hard to image those who did not voicing their opinions to any other council member. A lot of people attribute this evolution to Esslinger becoming a small business owner, and that may have certainly had a lot to do with it, but don't underestimate the impact McHugh's absence had on someone who is so impressionable. (Just to be clear: I'm not necessarily suggesting McHugh wouldn't have supported the mosque permit had he been on the council at the time. It's just a rare example of Esslinger not giving in to some of the more lamentable instincts of his base.)  

Instead of continuing his evolution after leaving office, Esslinger went back to the Well of Bad Influences when he teamed up with his friend Ben Schneider to create Oshkosh Area Politics, their execrable public access TV show. The conversations on OAP offer little insight except into the minds of two recovering politicians who were marginalized to the point of impotence and now blame everyone but themselves for their own failures in office.

Schneider now serves as McHugh's surrogate. It's not a step in the right direction. McHugh was more of a curmudgeon than an ideologically driven conservative, and not without his charm (recall the touching story he told about visiting the Grand Opera House with his wife before vote to authorize renovation funds). Schneider treats anyone who is not in perfect lockstep with him ideologically with condescension and derision. His inability to work with people he disagrees with is the stuff of local legend. Watching Esslinger and Schneider work themselves into a Berserker rage frenzy on OAP it's easy to see just how much of Schneider is rubbing off on Esslinger.

Needless to say, Paul Esslinger is the last thing Madison needs right now.

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