Candidates for public office can be control freaks. Double that for their campaign managers.
So when the news organizations that make up "We the People/Wisconsin" asked the state's seven candidates for governor to join us for blindfolded day trips to meet with state citizens, we expected a few blank stares and "you've got to be kidding" responses.
Instead, all seven campaigns readily agreed to take part in our statewide mystery tours. The resulting series of newspaper, television and radio reports have identified key issues through the faces and words of hundreds of Wisconsin citizens in 14 counties and 20 cities.
"On the Road" began in early May and ran through June. It grew from our sense that coverage of the 2002 race for governor, the most competitive in 16 years, should begin with hearing citizen voices before the flood of campaign commercials drowns them out.
The "We the People/Wisconsin" partners - Wisconsin State Journal, Wisconsin Public Television and Public Radio and WISC-TV (CBS, Madison) - decided they could set a civic tone by giving citizens a chance to talk with the candidates early in the process. Rather than set up town meetings that could be stacked by clever campaign staffs, the partners arranged citizens to meet with the candidates - on the citizens' turf - for unscripted conversations.
It was a test of the "third-places" theory of researcher Rich Harwood, who maintains that journalists can do a better job covering their communities by going to those places where people naturally gather.
The theory works. But it's hard work.
First, the media partners had to decide which candidates to invite. The Republican incumbent, Scott McCallum, took over the job in early 2001 when longtime Gov. Tommy Thompson became U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services. There are four Democratic contenders: U.S. Rep. Tom Barrett, Attorney General Jim Doyle, Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and state Sen. Gary George. Those five were shoo-ins for our blindfolded tours. With little debate, we added Libertarian Ed Thompson, a brother of the former governor and a former small-town mayor. With a bit more debate, we added Jim Young, the Green Party candidate.
Second, we needed to point our media circus down the right Wisconsin roads. That became an exercise in finding a mix of counties that offered political and in-state geographic balance. We checked county voting records back to 1990. We settled on county pairings (every candidate visited two adjacent counties) that carried us to seven distinct regions, from the pinewoods of the far northwest to the factories of the south and southeast.
The ground rules were simple: Each candidate was assigned to a pair of counties and would meet us at a designated spot on the morning of their day trip. But they didn't know any of the day's stops - usually five - until minutes before they arrived.
LEFT: Third-party candidate Ed Thompson watched bottles of Leinenkugel's Amber Light move down the line of the Chippewa Falls brewery.
Third, and perhaps most important, we wanted to visit places that "spoke" Wisconsin and represented spots where people naturally met. Our tours, which totaled more than 1,000 miles, brought us to a creamery, a half-dozen schools, colleges, breweries (this is Wisconsin, after all), a senior center, an auto-parts factory, farms, a Swiss cultural center, Lambeau Field (home of the Green Bay Packers), a technology research center, a winery, a bowling alley, a state park, a whitewater kayak race, retail stores, a barber shop, a power plant, an inner-city Milwaukee church, village halls, a prison, an American Indian reservation and casino and a long menu of cafes, coffee shops and diners.
We didn't get any candidate resistance, perhaps because "We the People/ Wisconsin" has a 10-year-old track record of putting citizens and policymakers together in innovative forums. We did get some resistance from businesses that feared having candidates of any party on their grounds. That happened a handful of times - almost always with companies headquartered in another state. Local plant managers who found the idea attractive sometimes were second-guessed by public-relations flacks a thousand miles away.
What did we learn?
First, people actually enjoy talking about politics - especially when they don't see it as politics. The people we encountered saw this as an opportunity to talk about Wisconsin's future with people who might be able to affect it.
Second, a pattern of issues emerged, such as the availability of health insurance coverage, that might not easily show up in a poll.
Third, our traveling crew of about 10 newspaper, television and radio reporters, videographers and photographers got a head start on the campaign. Perceptions about what's news in Madison, the state capital, don't necessarily hold up in Chetek, Rice Lake, Beloit or Wausau.
Coverage was coordinated and cross-promoted for broadcasts on Thursday and Friday and newspaper publication on Sunday.
Our "On the Road" series will live on long after the tours end. We'll invite citizens we met on the road to take part in fall candidate forums. We also plan to build a statewide poll around the top issues raised during the trips.
Still is also president of "We the People/Wisconsin."