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The generic congressman headshot grinned back indifferently, like they all do. Only looking at the Facebook profile pic of Wisconsin State Senator Randy Hopper, a Republican facing a looming recall election and public divorce, did I recognize that impenetrable grin. Had it been 25 years?
As the Wisconsin GOP unleashed attacks on public employees and unions this year, I was sickened by the shameless pandering of Governor Scott Walker, who had given away hundreds of millions of dollars in tax breaks to corporations before using that same deficit amount as an emergency pretense to slash state workers' benefits. I was even more disgusted by the lengths to which the Wisconsin GOP went to pass a vote against political foes, breaching their own state assembly procedures to enact a drastically unjust law that takes away citizens' rights -- from a party purporting to be against big government intruding on your life and limiting what you can earn.
The Wisconsin GOP kept up its bare-knuckled tactics of passing the law with tens of thousands protesting outside the statehouse, with the state's Democrats out of state in absentia. This law was just struck down by a judge in Wisconsin precisely for the improper procedures that went into passage of the bill. Then the Wisconsin Supreme Court re-enacted it.
No sooner had the Wisconsin GOP got their business-friendly agenda passed than the recall petition drives started against the GOP leaders who had supported this corporate coup. Further signs of the backlash came in the hotly disputed State Supreme Court election, which has been marred by outlandish claims of election officials, broken chain of custody of votes, and statistically impossible anomalies -- all of which have helped the Republican candidate, who will be acting as the state's oversight.
With their time in office looking limited, the Wisconsin GOP passed strict voter ID laws, a requirement that is well known to disenfranchise poor and minority voters, as well as college students. These are demographics that tend to vote against Republicans. Voter ID laws are always justified with claims of voter fraud, despite the lack of existence of voter fraud year after year. It's a bully tactic to make it harder on people to vote. To low-income people who rely on public transportation, requiring the purchase of a state driver's license amounts to a poll tax.
And after requiring an ID only obtainable at DMVs, Republicans tried to close down DMVs in poor areas.
And then the misleading voter mailings from the Koch Brothers' Americans For Prosperity told voters to vote after the day of the recall elections.
Wisconsin had already become a banana republic before the suspicious fire that burned down the headquarters of We Are Wisconsin, the opposition organization of that sprung up in response to the insatiable power plays of an unpopular minority.
But none of this had a face on it until I happen to just recently see the full name of one of the state senators facing a recall election on August 9th. This particular recall election was one of several that Republicans pushed back from July 15th, costing the state tens of thousands of dollars more.
Reading the name "WI State Sen. Hopper (R)" means nothing to me. But once I saw a tweet mentioning the name Randy Hopper, it felt like something out of a movie. Specifically, Animal House, at the closing epitaphs, where John Belushi's character is driving off in a convertible having just sabotaged a parade with a hapless co-ed in the back: "Sen. Bluto and his wife live in Maryland, Virginia."
I had heard of a Republican state senator in Wisconsin who was facing a recall election at the same time as a divorce. His wife left him after he began sleeping with a 25-year-old staffer for whom he later found a job. Learning that this was indeed Randy Hopper, it seemed all the more like a mediocre comedy with Adam Sandler playing a caricature of a clueless politician.
Randy Hopper was a counselor at my summer camp. Red Arrow Camp is an all-boys sleep-away cabin style sports camp on Trout Lake outside Minocqua, Wisconsin. I went there three summers, for seven weeks spanning from June to August. There were just over 100 boys, aged from about seven to 14, living maybe nine to 12 in a cabin sleeping in bunk beds. Each cabin had two counselors who were usually college aged. Randy was not my cabin counselor, but was an instructor for numerous activities, coached for different sport teams, and often addressed the campers collectively. He'd gone there as a camper himself, and took pride in RAC. Everybody knew everybody, and Randy was often the center of attention, even among the other staff.
And I mean everybody knew everybody. In what now no doubt sounds like a homoerotic fantasy, all boys bathed in the nude collectively in the lake, every night, sometimes in the morning too. It seems like something from "Mad Med" that back then, we regularly shampooed and soaped in the lake where it spilled in to a river. But eco-hindsight aside, the most daunting part beside the cold water was the showcase of puberty, and who was manly enough to be showing hair growth.
In an all-male environment, many civilized norms can start to slip away. It became commonplace in camp for counselors to address campers while resting their hands down the front of their pants. Randy in particular was a natural at returning his hands to their natural resting position over his scrotum. (This was commonly referred to as "making goop.") And yet, nothing ever really seemed perverted, just devolved.
This was an environment where early strains of macho take shape. What made you matter to the other boys was being the best at sports, having done more with girls than others, and not attracting ridicule. This I did not particularly succeed at, and tended to focus on lesser-respected activities like photography and theater.
Randy was a really good athlete. He could run a 50-yard dash in under six seconds. He played lacrosse at Marquette, and was a big deal there. He taught me how to play lacrosse, calling it the fastest sport on two legs.
Randy coached me at other things. He was probably the best water skier, helped no doubt because his family had a ski boat of their own. Randy was from a wealthy family in that area of Wisconsin, not a suburban explorer from Illinois like most of the kids. He was gregarious, often funny, a big presence among little boys. Though sometimes intimidating with his authority, he could still connect to the little kids that looked up to him. I was quiet around him, but admired his coolness.
Randy was my coach for the annual flag football tournament in camp, called The Salad Bowl. The process of preparing for the Bowl was half running plays and covering basic football skills. The other half seemed to be a focus on psyching out your opponent through glares and taunts, along with motivational speeches to make this flag football game very important to us, culminating in the whole team listening to a tape of inspirational music before the big game, which was songs from Rocky and dramatic classical music.
When our team won and ran off to the lake cheering, I remember being really happy -- for Randy. I was glad I hadn't let him down, I was proud that he was proud, and I hoped he might think I was cooler.
Randy was a good storyteller. He disclosed to us on occasion the camp's problematic history with a murderous disfigured local known simply as "Hookman." Hookman had acquired this name because of the large sharp hook where one of his hands should be. Hookman had used this appendage to kill wild deer and campers, ran surprisingly fast and quietly, and had even stalked a former counselor who had to leave the camp, as Randy explained to us in hushed tones around a camp fire late one night. Many of the cool boys would continue to insist that Hookman was real for the remainder of our time at camp.
Once a week the camp would get together in the main hall at night and sing songs. We read the words off a typed slide projected from a massive old projector. Randy would lead us in songs like "Lean On Me" or "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother." The values of this traditional boys camp were deeply instilled in us, and its website today still reflects the principles I learned there: "Red Arrow aims to inspire every camper to live unselfishly, thoughtfully, confidently." Randy was perhaps the biggest advocate for Red Arrow and encouraged appreciation for the tall pines, waking up with the bugle in the morning, and displays of sportsmanship.
We would occasionally play a neighboring camp at softball, and Randy was our coach. The bus ride over he would be drilling into us how much better we were than the other team because of our discipline and tradition. We wore matching shorts and t-shirts for our games. The other camp wore over-sized tie-dyed T-shirts. And when they managed to beat us despite their unkempt appearance, Randy would tell us on the bus back to camp that how they behaved upon winning was unbecoming, and that we represented ourselves well.
Randy Hopper gave me my first Grateful Dead T-shirt. It was a Jerry Garcia for President shirt, reading "Garcia in '88." I didn't know who Jerry Garcia or the Grateful Dead were at 12, but the shirt was cool because it was his, and I was psyched to be able to have stuff he wanted to trade for it. It was the first of many Dead shirts I would wear until Jerry died in 1995.
Randy was my coach for the camp's annual Olympics events, where the camp was divided into teams named after countries, like Italy, France, or America. We were Germany. While our team was lined up on a long bench outside our mess hall, talking about who wanted to compete in different events, I noticed Randy look at me and mutter something to the other counselor. Something was jotted down. I didn't know what that meant.
I later found out. I had been put in an event without knowing what it was. It felt helpless, and the event scared me to death. The Individual Medley. I was never a good swimmer, I was even taking swimming lessons with the little kids because I was still fearful in water. The Individual Medley, which I had never heard of, consists of swimming one length freestyle, one length scissor-kick, one length backstroke, one length breaststroke. I didn't even know how to do all of these strokes. Not only was I going to lose and be the only team out of four to not get a medal for this category, I was going to be so far behind the other guys swimming, when they finished I would still be flailing with a style I never tried, with two more lengths to go. I would be humiliated, mocked, teased, outcast.
I pleaded with Randy afterward and he refused to change the assignments. I told him how I had a better chance at any other thing, I was bad at swimming, I didn't know the different strokes. I was on the verge of tears. He walked away. I cried about it in dread. I prayed that if there was a God, that if he could do anything that could get me out of doing this, I would always believe in him and be grateful. (Either somebody heard me, or jet streams were on my side: a massive storm blew through, with high winds, barraging rain, and violent waves. For the first time in the camp's history, the Olympics were canceled because of bad weather.)
It was then that I saw how someone charismatic that everyone listens to can be dangerous and scary to me. Particularly when they can do whatever they want.
I can see the early signs of a future politician in my summers with Randy Hopper -- popular, always talking to groups, a cunning storyteller. But I am so deeply disappointed that this is the guy I knew who taught me such values as sportsmanship, teamwork, empowerment through challenges, a sense of community. He helped me to love Wisconsin. How could he be a part of all this? What a betrayal of all we prized. This depresses me all the more as my work in recent years has been dedicated to election integrity and campaign finance reform.
When I think of the people Randy Hopper represents now, I wonder if they care about his politics, his party's tactics, his personal life, his upbringing, or don't care about him at all. Maybe they have seen enough undemocratic grabs at staying in power. Maybe they really want to pay more to private services for things the government has been built to offer free to taxpayers. Maybe his constituents will vote for him to stay because they fear no one is fighting hard enough to give tax breaks to billionaires, even if it means stripping worker rights, slashing public services and cutting jobs.
I don't think these Wisconsinites care so much if their state senator was a showboat asshole summer camp counselor. There is no salacious gotcha-type smearing in the vivid memories I have from a camp that was as much recreation as rite of passage. This is perhaps a portrait of where future power poachers breed an ideology that they can disavow with growing leisure.
Because the reality is, the assault on voting rights in Wisconsin has made the voter suppression of the 2004 presidential election in Ohio look like miniature golf. Where many focus on get-out-the-vote efforts, I believe the votes will already be at hand to recall these embarrassments to elected office.
This clash is a turning point for America between bullies who keep getting their way and the will of an already suffering people. Because if they could, they would do like Randy Hopper's Germany and put you wherever they want, regardless of what you say or do.