On (From) Wisconsin: Kevin Kennedy to Retire


[Image via urbanmilwaukee]

Wisconsin’s Kevin Kennedy – who has served the state for 37(!) years – will retire at the end of next month as the state legislature continues its overhaul of the Badger State’s election structure. The Associated Press has the story:

Wisconsin’s longtime chief elections official Kevin Kennedy, who held an encyclopedic knowledge of state voter laws and history but who angered Republican lawmakers in recent years, said Tuesday that he will retire before the board he currently heads is eliminated next month.

Kennedy announced that he was retiring effective June 29, the day before the Government Accountability Board is dissolved under a law backed by Republicans and signed by Gov. Scott Walker. The retirement announcement, while expected, marks the end of 37 years of working on state elections.

“I’ve seen too many of my colleagues tossed out for political reasons. For me, it was a conscious choice to leave,” Kennedy said in an interview. “It’s just a little bit sooner than planned.”

Kennedy said he had intended to retire early next year, following completion of this fall’s presidential election, but he moved up the date due to the board being eliminated next month. Kennedy said he intends to remain involved with election law, perhaps as a consultant, but has no other job lined up.

Kennedy, 64, drew the ire of both Republicans and Democrats over the years as head of the GAB, which has overseen elections, ethics, campaign finance and lobbying laws since 2007. Anger from Republicans — mostly focused on the board’s role in the John Doe investigation into Walker and some conservative groups — led to lawmakers voting in December to do away with the nonpartisan board.

Kennedy takes criticism from Republicans and Democrats, as well as lobbyists and others subject to its rulings, in stride. “Someone is always going to whine about the call the refs are going to make,” he said.

The newly created partisan commissions overseeing elections and ethics will begin operating on June 30, the day after Kennedy’s retirement takes effect. Kennedy’s job was not eliminated under the law creating the new boards, but he would have needed to be reappointed.

That was seen as unlikely, given the new partisan makeup of the panels and that, in 2014, Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos called the GAB an embarrassment and said Kennedy “must go.”

Kennedy fought creation of the new boards, saying Wisconsin’s nonpartisan GAB was a model for the nation. Kennedy said Tuesday he didn’t want to have anything to do with the new boards, which he said will be under too much control of the very politicians they oversee. Legislative leaders and the governor get to appoint members of the board, who are subject to approval by the state Senate.

“It went from an independent executive branch agency to an adjunct of the Legislature,” Kennedy said.

Kennedy joined the former state elections board in 1979 as a staff attorney and became its executive director in 1982. He held that post until the board was eliminated in 2007, when the Legislature decided to combine it with the ethics board.

Creation of the nonpartisan Government Accountability Board, which was headed by Kennedy and comprised of former judges, came in the wake of a scandal that resulted in five former legislators being convicted of campaigning illegally. Critics are comparing the new partisan commissions to the boards that were in place prior to 2007.

During Kennedy’s tenure the boards he oversaw instituted a statewide voter registration system and implemented a campaign finance database where donations to political candidates are posted online.

Kennedy cited both of those, as well as running elections that didn’t “melt down” or devolve into “partisan gridlock,” as career highlights. The highest profile elections Kennedy oversaw were the recalls in 2011 and 2012 that targeted Walker and members of the state Senate.

The John Doe investigation into whether Walker and more than a dozen conservative groups illegally coordinated stemmed from those recalls. The Wisconsin Supreme Court ended the investigation in July, saying it was unconstitutional. Supporters of eliminating the board pointed to that decision as proof that it’s exceeded its authority, acting as an advocate rather than a regulator.

Kennedy stands by the board’s involvement in the probe and said he is retiring without bitterness or regret.

“Any measure of how both agencies performed was overwhelmingly positive,” he said of the old elections board and GAB. “You could always find things that could be done better or differently from your political perspective.”

As I’ve said before, Kevin’s departure is a huge loss for Wisconsin but a tremendous opportunity for election officials in other states and localities across the nation to take advantage of his vast knowledge and experience. His time in Madison may be coming to a close, but as he moves on I look forward to new chapters in Kevin Kennedy’s long story of contributions to the field of election administration – not just this year but long beyond.

Stay tuned …

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