No one has worked harder – and smarter – to keep the peace in Madison during the dispute over Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to crush public employee unions than Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney.
A veteran lawman who came up through the ranks of the sheriff’s department in the state’s second largest county before being elected sheriff in 2006, he’s hugely popular in the capital county – winning reelection in 2010 with 71 percent of the vote. He’s also hugely respected, as a key contributor to the work of the Governor’s Council on Domestic Violence, the Governor’s Council on Wisconsin Homeland Security, the Wisconsin Supreme Court Task Force on Mental Health and Criminal Justice System, Wisconsin law-enforcement groups and the National Sheriff’s Association.
That respect has served Sheriff Mahoney as he has worked long hours to help coordinate the response of various law-enforcement agencies to demonstrations that have attracted over 100,000 people, round-the-clock sleep-ins and sit-ins at the state Capitol and even clashing rallies between a small Tea Party contingent and a very large union crowd.
There has been no serious violence, no serious destruction and no serious arrests.
So you would think that Governor Walker and his aides – as well as their media echo chamber – would be hailing Sheriff Mahoney.
Of course, you would think wrong.
Sheriff Mahoney’s determination to preserve the peace, protect demonstrators and officials and respect basic liberties has earned him the scorn of those who are calling for an aggressive crackdown on dissent.
As the governor and his aides have attempted to limit access to the state Capitol – which the Wisconsin constitution says must remain open to all citizens – Sheriff Mahoney has steadily argued that he and his deputies are present both to maintain public safety and to defend the right of citizens to assemble and petition for the redress of grievances.
As Walker’s lawless approach has gone to extremes, culminating in a failure by the governor’s Department of Administration to obey an order from a Dane County Judge that the Capitol be opened, Sheriff Mahoney has become more explicit in his objections.
The sheriff objected when Dane County deputies, who have been frontline officers from the start of the recent protests, were the doors of the Capitol were not opened. Finally, he pulled his officers from the scene.
"When asked to stand guard at the doors that duty was turned over to the Wisconsin State Patrol because our deputies would not stand and be palace guards," said Sheriff Mahoney. "I refused to put deputy sheriffs in a position to be palace guards."
The sheriff and I have walked the Capitol several times in recent days and he has reflected again and again on the importance of respecting the Constitution and maintaining a free and open space for honest debate and dissent.
"I smile everyday at what I am seeing take place in this building," the lawman told me as we walked amid throngs of protesters on Sunday, before Walker's administration ordered an aggressive crackdown on dissent.
The crowds have been noisy and passionate, he said, as might be expected when issues of such consequence are at stake. But they have also been responsible and respectful."They've helped law-enforcement agencies to keep the peace, and we have helped to assure that they can exercise their First Amendment rights," the sheriff explains.
Even the signs on that decorate the walls of the Capitol met with his approval. "Freedom of speech!" he said, explaining that even as the building is cleaned, efforts are made to keep the displays of sentiment with regard to the budget bill in place.
"We're an example to the world about how to run a democracy," said Sheriff Mahoney, with clear pride in his voice.
The sheriff was right. Unfortunately, Governor Walker appears to have forgotten that a democratic state respects the rule of law, not the mandates of the monarch.
So the sheriff is not going to lead a palace guard.
Instead, he will guard the Constitution that so many praise but far too few defend.