Thursday, May 14, 2009

Paul Esslinger, A Real Class Act

A few points on Paul Esslinger's essential dismissal of Ted Bowen and Shirley Maddox from their respects seats on two city boards ...
  • 1.) It was handled in the completely classless way that we should expect from Esslinger.
Maddox and Bowen have both devoted decades to serving the city in various capacities and essentially fall under the category of local "elder statesmen" -- not "good old boys," mind you, but people who have devoted a great deal of time and energy to making this city a better place. Regardless of what anyone may think of their positions on issues, there is little doubt they arrive at them from a sincere desire to make Oshkosh a better place.

Folks like that are very rare in any city and when the time comes for them to move on they deserve to be honored, or at least thanked, for their service. The article makes it clear that neither of them were ready to move on. Now, as it is the mayor's prerogative to appoint people to various city boards, Esslinger has ever right not to re-appoint Bowen and Maddox, but when one does so to people with long records of service a little decorum is required. Esslinger clearly doesn't understand that.

What he should have done was express his intentions to both Bowen and Maddox and seek their input on possible successors. Then when the time came to make the changes public, he should have released a statement thanking the two of them for their service. I'm not suggesting Esslinger give them the keys to the City, but a "thank you" was the very least he could have done ... and I mean the absolute minimum.

By the way, this "screw you" attitude Esslinger is so fabulously demonstrating is a significant reason why numerous businesses have decided not to set up stakes in Oshkosh. I'm not saying Esslinger is directly responsible for losing businesses, but his classlessness is indicative of an attitude that has permeated local government and cost the city dearly over the years. How we treat ourselves is usually a reflection of how we treat others and there's no incentive for City Hall to change it's ways when the guy in charge lacks any degree of tact whatsoever.
  • 2.) Esslinger's rationale for the move is equally oblivious.
Here's what Hizzoner had to say about his motives:
“I want to see some debate,” Esslinger said. “I want to see some real debate on issues and not just rubber stamps.”
Get used to that phrase, Oshkosh, because you're going to be hearing it a lot. Esslinger could have said "fresh ideas," "new blood," or even "contrarian views." Instead he said "debate," which is to say he just wants people that will argue -- not produce their own ideas or solutions -- just argue. He wants "obstructionists," you could say.

What makes this stranger is that Bowen was actually the last thing from a rubber stamp during his time on the Parks board. In fact, Bowen was arguably the most "conservative" member of the board. I use "conservative" in the old fashioned sense that he was extremely resistant to change. There were a ton of very popular initiatives that Bowen opposed much to the frustration of other members of the board. By Esslinger's own definition Bowen is the kind of person he should want sitting on the board. While not quite the contrarian Bowen was, Maddox always did her due diligence and had valid reasons for voting the way she did. Her famously sunny disposition, enthusiasm and optimism were also a valuable asset in a town that is typically dour and pessimistic when it comes to things like development.

So when Esslinger implies that Bowen and Maddox are "rubber stamps" he's basically saying that they are either too stupid to know how to arrive at decisions on their own or, even worse, are being manipulated by forces unseen. It's a pretty odious insult to levy on a pair that have served the city honorably and selflessly for a long time.
  • 3.) Of course it was politically motivated!
Here's when small town politics starts becoming personal -- more like hand-to-hand combat than an exchange of artillery fire. In fact, it's not so much personal as it is downright incestuous.

Bowen's biggest problem isn't his record of service, which as we noted above would appear to be exactly what Esslinger is looking for. It's his wife, school board member Karen Bowen. In certain quarters of Oshkosh, Mrs. Bowen has the reputation for being a bra-burning feminist commie hellbent on raising your tax dollars to indoctrinate your children with atheism or maybe witchcraft (or something). Those who see her as such, probably voted for Paul Esslinger. Getting rid of Mr. Bowen isn't about losing a "rubber stamp;" it's about sticking it to Mrs. Bowen and her supporters, who -- let's be honest here -- probably did not vote for Paul Esslinger.

There's another complication to all of this. One of Karen Bowen's ideological antitheses on the school board is Michelle Monte, part of a husband/wife team that has tied their political fortunes with Esslinger's for some years now. I'm not suggesting that there was a conspiracy between the Montes and Esslinger to boot Bowen from the parks board (that would take a degree of planning that, frankly, I don't think they're capable of), but I am saying that they are smart enough to realize that what's good for one half of the team is good for the other and that Esslinger, to his Machiavellian credit, seized on an opportunity when he was presented with it.

If all of this sounds a little too petty to be believed, just consider this: Bowen's replacement on the Parks board will be Bob Freid, whose record of public service (according to Google, in any event) is rather sparse, save only a public endorsement of ... you got it: Michelle Monte for School Board.

Kent Monte's role in this drama is a bit different. According to one of the comments on the NW thread (so take it with a grain of salt) he served as Esslinger's "campaign manager" or whatever. There's good reason to believe that Kent and Esslinger are of the same mind on a lot of issues, which would make him a good proxy for Paul. As it would happen, Esslinger is no longer allowed to sit on the Planning Commission now that he's Mayor, so there's just such an opening ready to be filled by just such a person.

And as luck would have it, Esslinger's departure coincides with the end of another member's term. During her time on the common council Shirley Maddox came to be identified with the -- ooooohhh, what ridiculous cliche would the Northwestern use that does the city no good and only serves to inflame divisions? oh, yeah -- "wine and cheese" crowd. By replacing her with Monte, Esslinger is pretty obviously throwing a bone to his base, which apparently exists at the opposite end of the Nebulously Defined Socioeconomic Foodstuffs Strata.
  • 4.) Why this is an indication of poor leadership.
As mayor, Esslinger is going to presumably have to work with people who disagree with him on various issues. In other words, Esslinger will not always have the luxury of simply appointing like-minded cronies to positions when they are held by people of a different opinion. If he can't get his way in the future, as is inevitable, how will he react?

The smart money is on "not well," but I'm going to put all my chips on "by taking his ball and going home."
  • 5.) Here's the thing: On one level this is just politics ... but on another, it's not.
Every new "executive" is going to appoint people he knows and trusts to positions that fall under his or her purview. The dirty little secret about the federal government is that there are probably thousands of people around the country who can successfully be the Secretary of the Interior, but the President is going to pick someone from that pool that he knows and trusts.

That's not necessarily "dirty politics" or a quid pro quo so much as responsible team building. You can get away with that at the federal and even state level, but not in a city like Oshkosh. We're too small and the talent pool is too shallow. Appointments start to become crooked when people are provided positions of power who aren't competent and/or when they replace people who are for politically motivated reasons. Time will tell if the former is true, but the current circumstance certainly suggest the latter is the case.

While there is definitely a dispassionate political angle to all of this, one that the current mayor clear understands, there is another that Esslinger seems hopelessly oblivious to: Politics is as much about common courtesy as it is about cold-blooded wrangling. That's a concept a classless boor like Esslinger clearly has no comprehension of and we're the poorer for it as a city.
  • 5.) Don't plan on seeing a new council member any time soon.
This is exactly the reason why we urged as much transparancy as humanly possibly during the selection of the next council member.

This is the first of what will surely be a long and distinguished line of Esslinger instigated distractions that will take the focus off of the real issues. If the council has to devote a ton of time to fixing appointments to boards, it certainly won't have the capacity to refill it's own bench. Actually, now the council must fix this mess before moving on to selecting a new member precisely because Esslinger has diminished the council's ability to make appointments by calling into question at least one member's ability to do so in good faith.

Bra. Vo.
  • 6.) Hey Northwestern, why not include a list of all the appointments Esslinger is submitting to the council?
Just a thought, it seems like it would be relevant to the story. [MORE: They've added a link since last I checked.]
  • 7.) There is every reason to believe this is how Paul Esslinger is going to behave throughout the rest of his term as Mayor.
Here it all is in a nut shell, folks. This is the kind of unforced error we should all get used to because we've seen it time and time again from Esslinger and he never quite seems to learn from his mistakes.

Now the question becomes: will the voters in Oshkosh eventually learn from theirs?


Anonymous said...

You hit the nail right on the head. I can not believe anyone would be surprised by Paul's petty actions. That is what he is going to do. Hide and watch.

Anonymous said...

Wow. The poster of this article sure can write. And apparently, must watch a boatload of Oliver Stone movies too.

Brevity is the soul of wit!

Anonymous said...


All appointments have some connection with politics if you think not, you've drank too much kool-aid.

"What he should have done was express his intentions to both Bowen and Maddox and seek their input on possible successors. Then when the time came to make the changes public, he should have released a statement thanking the two of them for their service. I'm not suggesting Esslinger give them the keys to the City, but a "thank you" was the very least he could have done ... and I mean the absolute minimum"

Why? Is this past practice?

Paul's the the new broom and he's sweeping clean. Hope he keeps that up and applies the same cleaning to some of the city departments.

CJ said...

Thanks for the interesting insights JB. You offered a couple I hadn't even considered. The revenge factor never occurrred to me....(yikes)
Campaign manager, huh? I thought he was just the president of the PE fan club.
No thoughts about John Hinz's appointment?

Anonymous said...

It doesn't have to be past practice to be done. Esslinger wants to put his own mark on the city. Maybe he should start by showing some class. Instead he just shows he's an a$$.

Jb said...


It's called "courtesy." It's what people who work together extend to one another to make life easier for each other. It's also good politics.

This isn't about whether or not Esslinger has the ability or the option of changing things, it's about how he does it. This never should have been an issue, but because Esslinger handled this so poorly it is.

"Cleaning house" is fine and necessary from time to time, but it has to done tactfully otherwise it won't happen at all. The more often Esslinger resorts to this type of behavior, the harder for him it will become to change things. Sooner rather than later, people won't be resisting the changes he wants to make, they'll just be resisting the changer.

Jb said...

I really don't have much to say about Hinz. He's filling an empty alternate slot. That seems perfectly kosher to me. Whether or not he will be an asset, remains to be seen.

Jb said...

As for Oliver Stone movies, if you think I'm long-winded now, just wait til I get started talking about cinema ... Oliver Stone flicks included.

CJ said...

Natural Born Killers?

Jb said...

"Natural Born Killers" is a funny place to start because it really marks the start of the phase of Stone's career where Stone starts becoming what one critic has called "one of America's great directors of awful movies."

In one respect, it's a total zeitgeist movie. An film directed by a controversial director, written by the "it" story teller of the time (Quentin Tarantino), with a soundtrack produced by Trent Reznor about an ultraviolent, postmodern version of Bonnie and Clyde. That had a lot of potential at the time, but it never really panned out.

To start looking at the film one really needs to look at the context in which it was released. Violent crime rates were still pretty high in the early '90s and with the mainstreaming of 24 hour cable news, a lot of people were getting their first looks at just how bad things were ... and these first looks came via television. It seemed only natural that some would wonder if exposure to violent images would desensitize viewers and, by extension, if the glorification of violence would encourage it. In fact, NBK may have actually sparked the most fevered phase of the "does movie violence prompt viewers to act violently" debate.

Oh yeah, and there was that whole OJ Simpson thing too.

The economy also sucked at the time. Kurt Cobain killed himself in the spring of '94 and the national fascination with boy bands and bubble gum pop was still a few years off. It was just just before the boom years of the late 90's and, frankly, it sucked. NBK seemed out to try and capture the spirit of cynicism, angst, frustration and listlessness felt by many a Gen-Xer at the time. In so far as it was trying to capture that mood, it might have succeeded. But that's about it.

A great deal of the reason for this has to do with the progression of Stone as a director. "JFK," the last film he made before NBK (let's just forget about "Heaven & Earth" for a second), was Stone's first foray into "alternate reality." He created an alternative history of a famous American event blending fact with conspiracy theory with a very stylized approach that employed unconventional camera angles, jump cuts, black and white "memory" sequences, out-of-focus frames, recreations and well-known news footage. It was extremely distracting, in some ways one of the better displays of slight-of-hand used by a film director because the dizziness obstructs the viewer from stopping for a second and saying to himself, "Wait a minute: there isn't a single shred of evidence to support any of this insane conspiracy theory!"

Stone took the technique he deployed in "JFK" to mimic a hazy memory and took it to another level in NBK, this time using it to simulate a (drug-induced, at times) hallucination. Likewise, he moved on from JFK's alternate reality and into NBK's surreality. The problem is that Stone's sense of satire is so heavy-handed that no amount of cinematographic pyrotechnics can distract the audience away from the fact that there's just not much substance to the movie. Does the media manipulate gruesome for its own ends? You bet. Now what? Oh, more killing ... wonderful.

In my most generous moods thinking about this movie I like to give Stone the benefit of the doubt and suppose he created the movie as a kind of an elaborate joke that Mickie and Mallory were, just like the media, guilty of "overkill," but if that's the case the punchline just isn't worth the set-up. There was always potential in the project, but Stone's desire to make his point so aggressively actually ended up diminishing it and the film.

CJ said...

I thought NBK was one of his better movies. It was an amazing parody of everything that was wrong with pop culture, society and the medias portrayal of it.

I also think, because of it's graphic and violent nature, the satire went over a lot of heads.

It was less violent than Scarface (screenwriter) which got far better reviews.

JFK was a who's who Holllywood-style production. Strong on stars, weaker rehash of history. I would have liked to see him take historacl theories father to the edge. (That's just my preference.)
I did not enjoy it as much as I thought I would.

CJ said...

Personally, I think his best movie was Platoon.

Guess it's time to start another blog piece, eh? *S*

Anonymous said...

you had me at "Nebulously Defined Socioeconomic Foodstuffs Strata"
awesome phraseology Dude!

Okay, this committee appt. stuff, stacking and unstacking decks etc. really happens all the time. I've seem people get tossed from committees to get replaced by the mayor's brother, sister-in-law and on down the happy gene pool. There was no pomp and circumstance because that's the Oshkosh thing - lots o' fireworks. I guess that's the point TP is trying to make on his own blog (that this happens all the time) with his attempt at red-herring framing of this latest Esslinger act (which he's doing because like it or not he's now in bed with Pauly 4ever). But you are so correct - the important thing about it is the public perception of the Esslinger style and their fear of a future of MOTS.

But whoa, what's with that guy? In public life when you backstab someone you always ALWAYS make it look like a pat on the back, so that only insiders know the real deal. Esslinger is a dope. After years of service the norm IS to make a fuss, to really honor someone. Not only for those individuals, but this shoddy treatment sends a message to ALL civically active people who continue on - REALLY bad for morale. People LIVE for those moments of "stature" or appreciation. All that "give back to the community" stuff, omg the "payment" for that is recognition. Take that away and you have some really bad morale. And if it's not intended as a backstab, but a genuine attempt at "fresh blood" he's beyond bat-shit crazy to handle it SO poorly. wtf. Esslinger seems like a social zip to me, even one-to-one. You say something to the guy and pffft. You either connect with the scenario already playing in his head or - nada. Just really bad with people. He hooks into amorphous public anger/frustration, and that's all he's got.

and Dude! I totally dig your analysis of the "I want debate" remark. lol
But, Live by the sword die by the sword. By that I mean skill with framing and abilty to run a good cattle drive of citizens gets you elected, but what happens when that same skill at verbiage becomes an "un-doing". People who are in love with "form" over function are going to keep the Talk spigot turned on full blast and that will APPEAR to be action. Possibly for a long, long time. Until Toto pulls back the curtain on the Great and Powerful Oz and people think, hmm is change happening? are problems being solved ? or are we just gesturing wildly and yelling at each other like a steroetypical ethnic family in a bad 50s sitcom?

Words are just air vibrations, debate is illusion. Rhetoric is slight of hand or at best poetry. It solves nothing, does nothing, decides nothing. Increased debate does not equate with increased civic participation. Kent Monte has been blowing wind for years. The same guys have been responding to him for years.
No change. Just musical chairs. Speaking of chairs - I can't even begin to speculate how long it will take to get that last council chair filled, pretty damn funny. I'm hoping for next fall yet, set some kind of record.

Final thought - Maybe these guys have a deal with Stew. All these histrionics, the "debate" and the grandstanding...well that sure helps to sell papers, and keeps 'em comin to the forums to argue, don't it? haha but then certain persons "hate Gannett" SOOO much. Odd how the mutually beneficial pot-stirring relationships are so darn..mutually beneficial.
So yeah, you could hurt yourself laughing at politicians (and newspapers), you could.

Jb said...

There are only a handful of movies that I look at now and ask myself, "Jesus, how the Hell did that movie ever get made?" and "JFK" is one of them. To this day I'm really not sure why is got a best picture nomination.

It's funny that you mention "Scarface." Stone wrote the screenplay and De Palma directed it, but one of Tarantino's big influences was de Palma (at least for a while), and Tarantino wrote NBK ... circle of artistic life.

Anonymous said...

Michelle Monte is over on the ONW site serving as mouthpiece for her husband and Paul Esslinger. As usual her post contains sarcasm and snippiness for she knows nothing different. At the end she also calls for term limits. Good idea. The first one to go would be King Esslinger. She ought to be careful what she wishes for.