Recall controversies got attorney Haas promoted
There are three chapters in the career of attorney Michael Haas, the new elections administrator for the Government Accountability Board, which oversees elections run by Wisconsin’s 1,851 municipal clerks.
--Chapter 1: Haas worked in partisan Democratic politics between 1987 and 1994—activism that he says ended after he lost two straight campaigns for the state Assembly seat covering Sun Prairie, where he grew up.
--Chapter 2: After that, Haas was a partner in a law firm and worked as city attorney for Milton, Edgerton and Stoughton. He was in the middle of a Milton controversy over whether city officials could privately negotiate with a company that wanted to build an ethanol plant.
A Court of Appeals decision spanked Milton officials for holding those secret negotiations.
--Chapter 3: Last year, Haas played a key role when the GAB sorted through millions of signatures from residents who petitioned to recall Gov. Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.
He was part of the GAB decisions to set up a secure “bunker” to house the petitions, to determine what level of scrutiny those signatures should get, and to decide when to call the June 2012 recall elections that Walker and Kleefisch survived.
Then, Haas recalled, “There wasn’t a (recall) roadmap. It was a rare thing. We had to really come up with a team plan on how we were going to administer it, understanding that there was all this politics swirling around that (the GAB) had nothing to do with.”
Working on Democratic campaigns for governor, president and Congress in both Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., and then running for the Assembly in 1992 and ’94 exorcised partisanship and any future run for office “out of my system,” Haas says now.
“I turned out to be a better nonpartisan administrator than a politician,” added the 48-year-old lawyer who started his $105,000-a–year job as administrator of the GAB’s Elections Division on Jan. 1.
In that job, Haas has no choice.
GAB employees are nonpartisan—they can neither donate to any candidate nor be involved in a campaign—because they must interpret and administer election laws. Wisconsin is the only state whose elections are run by a nonpartisan board.
“We view our job as administering the laws the governor and Legislature give us,” Haas said. “We’re nonpartisans, but we operate in a political environment.”
But, Haas added, having run for the Legislature—even though it was 19 years ago—means he knows firsthand how much pressure is on candidates to raise money, knock on doors and meet campaign-finance report deadlines.
Haas, who joined the GAB as a staff attorney in 2008, said his bosses knew about his 1987-’94 Democratic activism. “I wanted to make sure they knew.”
His immediate boss is GAB Director Kevin Kennedy, although the GAB board—made up of retired judges—makes all major decisions after listening to staff recommendations. The GAB board voted to promote Haas.
Kennedy and Haas do not think criticism of the GAB from some Republican lawmakers is aimed specifically at the new elections administrator.
Kennedy said he recommended that Haas get the top elections job because of his “depth of knowledge and a calmness that, ‘We’re going to solve this problem. We’re not going to panic.’”
Kennedy said he saw that in Haas in 2011-12, probably the most turbulent era in Capitol politics.
Those years included the first recount of a state Supreme Court election, all but eliminating collective bargaining for most public employees, and the circulating of petitions that prompted 15 recall elections—the Walker and Kleefisch statewide votes and 13 regional elections that targeted state senators.
Although Walker became the only governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election, a record three Republican senators were tossed from office.
Haas said 2011-12 taught him the importance of a “team approach,” especially when the GAB must interpret laws that are not clear, and “not to let things get to us personally.”
Kennedy said he knew that Haas was once an active Democrat but, “It’s so far down the scale when you look at the performance that Mike’s had in the last five years. Everybody has a past. It’s really about how you perform on the job.”
His new job? “Somebody has to be the unbiased party,” Haas said.
Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.