Friday, December 19, 2008

A legislator unfit to serve

State Rep. Jeff Wood (I-Bloomer) is hardly the first legislator in Wisconsin to be arrested for OWI. The fun part about making a list is that, invariably, some name will be forgotten, as a conclusive list is so long.

In this week's column for the Waukesha Freeman, I argue a cultural change must take place as well as a legal change if we are to reduce drinking and driving. This cultural change must include, and be led by example by, the state legislature.

A cultural change must accompany the legal change. It is no secret Wisconsin’s culture is permeated with the influence of alcohol. Our universities are notorious. Attendance at sporting events is often more about the alcohol consumption off the field rather than the play on the field. And it’s also no secret that we’re paying for it every day with the lives of our citizens. Reading the record of Wood’s night of allegedly driving under the influence, it’s a miracle nobody was killed. Unfortunately, it’s likely that during that night somewhere else in Wisconsin there was another alcohol-related crash. It’s likely that night saw another person unable to return home to their family because a drunken driver killed them.

Our elected officials represent the best and the worst of us. Just as Illinois has a culture of political corruption, Wisconsin has a culture of drinking, and it’s prominent in our elected officials. Hamlet’s Danes at a wedding feast have nothing on the late afternoon cocktail session at some of Madison’s watering holes. Can we trust those elected officials to change Wisconsin’s drinking culture enough to keep the intoxicated drivers off our roads?

The change in our drinking and driving culture must come through leadership and example. Jeff Wood can start a new trend in taking responsibility by resigning. If not, the judge sentencing Wood should make him an example.

Drinking, even alcoholism, is not a disqualification to serve. After all, it's not as if legislators are making life-and-death decisions requiring absolute sobriety. There is no sense of urgency in any vote in Madison that cannot wait for a pot of coffee and a hangover to dissipate.

But a third arrest for OWI, coupled with possession of marijuana, is certainly enough of a misjudgement to render the officer-holder unfit. Wood deserves points for facing his constituents as quickly as he did. But as the week wore on, his media appearances looked less like a sincere accounting than they looked like half-honest damage control.

Wood claims he needs to continue to serve because of the importance of the coming state budget. However, he is (by his own volition) a man without a party with which to caucus, and he no longer holds any position of responsibility thanks to his behavior. The governor has already indicated his budget proposal may be delayed as the state waits for the federal government. If Wood were to do the responsible thing and resign now a special election could be held for his seat, giving his constituents the voice in the state budget Wood claims he's clinging to his legislative seat to preserve.