Monster-of-an-editorial crusade abolishes 'Frankenstein' veto: persistence, creativity a powerful combination."MADISON, Wis. (AP) -- State Sen. Fred Risser set the date Friday for a public hearing on a plan to limit the governor's broad veto power after enduring 52 days of scathing editorials from the state's second largest newspaper."
That was the lead on the wire story in was newspapers across Wisconsin on May 26, 2007. When your editorial crusade moves from the opinion page onto the front page--when it actually makes news--you know you're winning.
But in our case, at the Wisconsin State Journal, we still had a long way to go.
It took seven more months of editorials, Web features, and help from other media and the public to get a unanimous Senate vote for a constitutional amendment. Then we had four months to convince voters to overwhelmingly ban the most abusive and undemocratic veto power in the nation.
We winged it at times and benefited from an unexpected change in Senate leadership. Yet we couldn't have captured the state's attention and imagination--we couldn't have won our crusade--without a lot of planning, risk-taking, persistence, creativity, and reader involvement.
Here's what we learned along the way:
Make sure you--and your publisher--are passionate about the cause. You might be writing about the same thing for a year or more. Can you keep it compelling? What's your leverage?
My publisher was aghast when I showed him a picture of what became known as the "Frankenstein" veto. Governors could basically "veto" into law just about anything they wanted.
The worst example was from 2005. Using the "partial" veto power unique to Wisconsin, the governor had crossed out all but a couple dozen unrelated words and numbers across an 800-word passage of the state budget. He then stitched together the remaining bits and pieces of text and figures, much as Mary Shelley's Doctor Frankenstein stitched together his monster. The resulting sentence increased a state-aid program by hundreds of millions of dollars beyond what the legislature had approved.
My publisher's outrage gave me the confidence to push relentlessly for reform. I knew we could have a big impact because the key senator blocking reform was from Madison.
Think ahead. How long can you sustain your crusade? What's your out if you lose? What will you do if you win?
We launched a daily feature demanding a public hearing on a constitutional ban. Our cartoonist, Phil Hands, drew a Frankenstein's monster. We added a stitch to the monster's head every day the senator failed to act. We referred to this as "marking Franken-time."
Next to the monster's head each day we published a short rip on the senator for being hypocritical or wasting time. We tried to be funny and sharp in our daily digs. And gradually our monster's brow grew higher to fit more stitches.
We calculated in advance that we could add stitches for nearly a year before the monster's head would stretch the length of an entire newspaper column. If we failed to get action by then, our out was to recruit a formidable opponent to run against the key senator. If we won the public hearing--which we did--our plan was to count down to the hearing by removing one stitch from the monster's head until he was blemish-free and smiling.
Let 'em know you mean it. Whenever the governor came in to tout unrelated proposals to our editorial board, we always pressed him on our veto crusade. I'm convinced that he eventually backed down because we let him know how serious we were.
Keep it fresh. When the senator blocking reform sent us an op-ed, we published it verbatim on a Sunday But we also reprinted his op-ed as an editorial. Using the very "Frankenstein" veto power we sought to ban, we carved up his words, turning them against him. Having been vetoed down to a single sentence, his 500-word op-ed now stated that he was obeying the governor rather than sticking up for the public good.
Later, we dressed our cartoonist in a Frankenstein costume and took him down to the capitol for the public hearing we had sought. I shot a popular video for our Web site, and TV news stations captured images of our monster that they used as stock footage for months.
Involve readers. Ask for feedback. Hold contests. Do a Q&A editorial that answers your critics' toughest questions.
A local college student created a "Veto-matic" machine for us that I featured in columns. Users could punch in any sentence into the "Veto-matic" Web site, and it would search the entire 380,000-word state budget for all of the words in the correct order. It would then describe precisely how to cross out reams of text around those words so that the desired law could be stitched together.
I challenged readers to come up with the craziest laws possible. My favorite one that we published: "The governor shall not wear clothes."
EDITOR'S NOTE: Scott Milfred and his mall Wisconsin State Journal staff were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing this year. Their editorial crusade to narrow the governor's veto authority "was undoubtedly the major factor in moving the reform," according to Common Cause in Wisconsin.
Scott Milfred is editorial page editor for the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison. Email: email@example.com