After 37 years helping to oversee elections in Wisconsin, Government Accountability Board executive director Kevin Kennedy is spending his last day on the job today.
Kennedy is retiring, just a day before the GAB dissolves into separate elections and ethics agencies under a law passed last year. The non-partisan agency run by retired judges has overseen both issues for the past eight years. Republicans voted to replace it with partisan-appointed panels though, citing concerns about how the agency got involved with a secret John Doe investigation that targeted Governor Scott Walker’s campaign and conservative groups. That probe was eventually blocked by the state Supreme Court.
Kennedy, who has ushered the state through dozens of elections and overseen numerous legal battles, says his career has been an interesting experience. “I feel really fortunate and blessed to have been able to sit here for 37 plus years and see all sorts of dynamic things going on.”
Among the history he’s witnessed that stands out to him – the state’s historic wave of recalls and Supreme Court recount earlier this decade, along with a legislative redistricting that still faces legal challenges five years later. “That was such a tumultuous and turbulent time, and you look back and say I don’t know who else could have done this job other than the Government Accountability Board.”
Kennedy has been a fervent defender of the agency, which was created in the wake of what’s known as the “caucus scandal,” where multiple state lawmakers and legislative staffers were charged with illegally doing campaign work using state resources. He believes the people of Wisconsin are losing out with the agency’s demise. “Having trained decision makers, who come in with no clear partisan affiliation – who aren’t beholden to legislative leaders for their appointment or their nomination – I think makes a big difference.”
He says the success of the new ethics and elections panels will be highly dependent on whether the decision makers apply the law to the facts, instead of letting politics influence their decisions. “The challenge is going to be with the decision makers,” Kennedy says.
AUDIO: Kevin Kennedy talks about whether new ethics and elections divisions will work (:51)
In the push to split the GAB, Kennedy often found himself the target of personal attacks from GOP leaders, something he says he never took personally. He says such attacks reflected more on the critics. “The fact that they made it personal tells me that they did not have the facts. They had to make it personal to make their case.”
Kennedy says he’s always looked at himself as a referee who applied the rules as they were written – which often requires taking a certain degree of abuse over unpopular decisions.
As for what’s next, Kennedy plans to spend his first day in retirement Thursday watching closing arguments in a federal case challenging several changes in Wisconsin voting laws, including the state’s controversial voter ID requirement.