The Ethics Report Featured Article

Members of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin receive a monthly copy of The Ethics Report. Each edition will include summaries of research as well as articles about ethical leadership in practice...frequently awarding a "green light" or "red flag" rating. Each month, we include a featured article from the most recent edition of The Ethics Report.

September 2021

Does Social Media Contribute to Increased Polarization?


Without question, our nation has become much more divided politically in the last 20 years. Many people wonder whether social media has contributed to this increased polarization. A recently released report by the Sterns Center for Business and Human Rights at New York University, referred to as the Sterns Report, provides a very comprehensive analysis of this question. The report analyzes the evidence bearing on social medias role in polarization, assesses the effects of severe divisiveness, and recommends steps the government and the social media industry can take to ameliorate the problem. They determined that Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube are not the original or main cause of rising U.S. political polarization, but the use of these platforms intensifies divisiveness and contributes to its corrosive consequences. They describe “affective polarization”, a form of partisan hostility characterized by seeing ones opponents as not only wrong on important issues, but also abhorrent, unpatriotic, and a danger to the countrys future. They concluded that this kind of hatred now infects American politics, and social media has been a significant contributing factor.

The study clearly states that the reasons behind the divisive role of social media are complex, with shared responsibility by government and the social media industry. It is recommended that the reader review the entire report. But here are some of the highlights.

  • The major social media companies (notably Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and the major political parties (Republicans and Democrats) bear some shared responsibility in the evolving promotion of “affective polarization”. The social media companies found it in their business interest to encourage polarization because it increased the engagement of users. In a specific example, Facebook’s recommendation algorithm had been steering some people toward pockets of hyper-partisan antagonism, including groups promoting QAnon and other similar extremist organizations. Meanwhile, the major political parties viewed the social media framework as an opportunity to “fire up their base” even though the process used fabrications that promoted the vilification of the opposition party.
  • The efforts by social media companies to monitor themselves has been inadequate. In a Wall Street Journal report they determined that Facebook knew their systems were driving people apart. The Journal reported about internal 2018 Facebook meeting where company officials clearly stated that “their algorithms exploit the human brains attraction to divisiveness.” Officials added, “Without changes, the companys automated systems would steer users to ‘more and more divisive content in an effort to gain user attention and increase time on the platform’.” Despite this warning, CEO Mark Zuckerberg and other senior executives largely shelved the basic research,” the Journal reported. The basis for inaction was the concern that conservatives would feel unfairly singled out in the effort.
  • Efforts by the major social media companies to address hyper-polarization have lacked transparency.  in 2018, YouTube began reducing recommendations of borderline content that could misinform users in harmful ways. In the year following this change, YouTube reported that “watch time of borderline content from non-subscribed recommendations dropped by over 70% in the U.S, and they saw a similar drop in other markets as well.” YouTube hasnt released the underlying data necessary to verify the claimed 70% drop, but independent research appears to support the companies claim. Improved transparency could lead to the development of meaningful industry guidelines.
  • Independent studies have determined that the extreme divisiveness on social media is asymmetrical. The use of extreme divisiveness is more pronounced among the conservative users when compared to liberal users. The complete reasons are not certain for this asymmetrical pattern. The report acknowledges that the Trump presidency could be a factor. More than any other President in the last 75 years, Donald Trump has consistently (and almost exclusively) focused his message to his base of support, rather than the general population of the United States as a whole. And frequently, his message was confrontive, vilifying the political opposition. Of course, there may be other factors at play. Nonetheless, the asymmetrical pattern could mean that any efforts to dial down divisiveness could be interpreted as censorship and an example of anti-conservative bias.
  • Despite the claims by some that unregulated social media is protected by free speech, there are meaningful and appropriate regulatory steps the government should take to reduce the effects of “affective polarization”. The Sterns Report concludes that the Federal Trade Commission, with the backing of the U.S. Congress, should collaborate with social media companies and other stakeholders to create standards for industry conduct that would then be enforceable by the government. The  standards would define the duties of social media companies when addressing hateful, extremist, or threatening content. In addition to data transparency, the standards could set benchmarks for the amount of various categories of harmful content that remains on platforms even after automated and human moderation. If the benchmarks are exceeded, fines could be imposed. The standards could also require minimum protections of user privacy.


We again remind the reader to review the entire Sterns Report. The issues surrounding the role of social media are complex and evolving. Nonetheless, the Sterns Report is perhaps the most thorough analysis to date regarding the potential impact of social media on political divisiveness. The report stresses the importance of taking action to address the concerns raised, despite the complexities. While some may propose a “status quo” approach to social media, the data provided here reinforces that the status quo is in reality a slippery slope. 

The following recommendations were included in the Sterns Report:

Recommendations to the Federal Government:

1. President Biden needs to prioritize a broad government response to the heightening of partisan hatred by social media. By means of one or more speeches, a bipartisan blue-ribbon commission, or via some other high-visibility vehicle, Biden should seek to persuade both lawmakers and the public that to avoid future versions of the Capitol insurrection, we must confront online polarization and its malign consequences.

2.The House Select Committee investigating the Capitol insurrection should devote ample resources to determining how technology was used to incite the violence on January 6. Panel members must make this a central line of inquiry and use their subpoena power to pursue it.

3. Lawmakers ought to pass legislation mandating more disclosure about the inner workings of social media platforms. This transparency will allow outside researchers to study how algorithms decide who sees what content so that policy makers, in turn, can craft more informed legislation addressing the pathologies associated with social media use.

4. Congress should empower the Federal Trade Commission to draft and enforce new standards for industry conduct. Greater transparency is necessary but not sufficient. We advocate legislation authorizing the FTC to collaborate with social media companies and other stakeholders to create industry standards that would be enforceable by the government.

5. While they grapple with social media as it now exists, legislators need to encourage exploration of alternatives to current business models. Some technologists and entrepreneurs are imagining
a radically different, pro-democratic digital future; they deserve public support.

Recommendations to the Social Media Platforms:

6, Social media companies should adjust algorithms to depolarize platforms more systematically. The platforms should create metrics to measure polarization and improve the dial-turning” measures they now apply on an ad hoc basis to reduce antagonism during emergencies.

7. But depolarization must take place transparently. Disclosing what theyre doing, how theyre doing it, and what content might potentially get blocked in the process is the only way the platforms can counter suspicions that such measures are designed to manipulate politics or otherwise exert illegitimate influence.

8. Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube should each double the size of their human content-moderation corps and make moderators full-fledged employees. This expansion would be expensive, but it would afford front-line reviewers more time to consider difficult content decisions. Bringing them in-house would lead to better supervision of reviewers and more careful analysis.

9. The industry needs to strengthen engagement with civil society groups that can help identify sources of dis- and misinformation related to elections, public health, and patterns of discrimination. Social media companies should do much more to aid the growing number of nonprofits, including introducing new ways for them to share information with the platforms and one another.

10. The platforms should reduce rewards for virality, which can contribute to polarization. Obscuring like” and share counts, for example, might encourage consideration of content on its merits, rather than on whether it provokes outrage, hatred, or fear.

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August 2021

The Importance of Seeking Common Ground

Ethical leaders are unifiers who seek to represent the interests of their entire constituency. This often requires the willingness to seek bipartisan solutions, rather than “winner takes all” outcomes. In today’s hyper-partisan world, this is no small task. Yet there are elected officials who are able to demonstrate this ability. In an effort to determine the bipartisan efforts of legislators, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin has developed a scorecard. Essentially, it provides an analysis of voting records...a view offered through the lens of the various special interest groups that rate elected leaders. There are more than 400 special interest groups that provide ratings for federal positions. These special interest groups cover the full political spectrum (e.g. National Rifle Association, Sierra Club, National Education Association and Club for Growth). VoteSmart.org provides a fairly complete list of the special interest ratings, updated on an annual basis. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin has used a combined view of the special interest group ratings of an elected leader provide an indicator of that individual’s willingness to understand and represent the diverse interests of their constituency. If the combined ratings tend to fall exclusively into the “low” and “high” ratings, it may be an indicator that the elected leader does not seek middle ground positions. At the same time, ratings that tend to be relatively even across the board (low, moderate, high) may indicate a willingness to seek compromise and find middle ground solutions. The attached image shows the results from the 2020 analysis of Senators Ron Johnson and Tammy Baldwin. In this example, both senators have not demonstrated practices in the middle ground, as assessed by various special interest groups.


Meanwhile, there is a new analysis that is now available, released in 2021 by the Common Ground Committee. The Committee has developed a scorecard that portrays and compares bipartisan efforts by elected officials. The Common Ground Scorecard measures the degree to which elected officials and candidates for office embody the spirit and practice of a Common Grounder — someone who seeks points of agreement and solutions on social and political issues through listening and productive conversation. It does not assess issue positions, ideology, or any other qualifications. The Common Ground Scorecard awards points on a 100-point scale with an opportunity for 10 additional points. Negative scores can result from the 20 point penalty in the Communication category for any instance of insulting a political opponent in the past three years. Meanwhile, a higher Common Ground Score indicates that the elected official or challenger better embodies the spirit and practice of a Common Grounder, as defined by Common Ground Committee. 

As reported by the Common Ground Committee, the scorecard may be used, alongside other factors, to evaluate candidates for public office. They also encourage citizens to celebrate and thank current elected officials who demonstrate strong Common Grounder behaviors, and encourage other elected officials and challengers to elevate their Common Ground behavior by taking specific actions to improve their score.

The Common Ground Scorecard analyzes information in ten categories from a number of data sources, including the Lugar Center, FiveThirtyEight, VoteSmart, and the Bipartisan Policy Center. The ratings cover members of congress, the President, Vice President and governors.

What does the scorecard say about Wisconsin legislators?

The scorecard provides an analysis by state. This is a useful analysis for voters and constituents of statewide initiatives. Here is the 2021 scorecard for Wisconsin:

  • Tammy Baldwin (D) -            40
  • Tony Evers (D) -                   32
  • Scott Fitzgerald (R) -            29
  • Mike Gallagher (R) -             65
  • Glenn Grothman (R) -           12
  • Ron Johnson (R) -                25
  • Ron Kind (D) -                       50
  • Gwen Moore (D) -                 26
  • Mark Pocan (D) -                  35
  • Bryan Steil (R) -                    45
  • Tom Tiffany (R) -                     4

The numbers show Mike Gallagher (65) and Ron Kind (50) with the highest ratings. Meanwhile, Glenn Grothman (12) and Tom Tiffany (4) have the lowest ratings.

While no comparative analysis is fool-proof, the Common Ground Scorecard can be a helpful tool. Numerous studies have verified that political partisanship has increased dramatically in the last 15 years. Our nation has moved farther to the leftand the right, resulting in name-calling, blaming and gridlock. The challenging issues we face are complex and they require our best collective input. It’s as if we are expecting good results using a playbook with half the pages missing, followed by blaming and name-calling rather than real work and follow through. The Common Ground scorecard can help inform citizens to provide or withhold support based upon the elected leader's track record for bipartisan collaboration. Based upon this information, we provide a green light for Rep. Mike Gallagher and Rep. Ron Kind. And we award a red flag to Rep. Glenn Grothman and Rep. Tom Tiffany. And we encourage citizens to factor this information when considering their vote.

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July 2021

Does National and State Hyper-Partisanship Affect Local Communities?

The growing split between the two major political parties is well documented. The political conflict at the national level is also focused at a new battleground…the state capitols around this country as legislatures wrestle with issues such as redistricting and voter access. A question remains…does national and state partisanship affect local communities. The answer? It depends. 

In the case of the COVID-19 pandemic, the evidence appears to support that the divisive politics on this issue has led to local issue conflict as well. For example, there are numerous stories of protests over mask mandates in schools and local communities.  Beyond anecdotal information, studies seem to reinforce this situation. In a study by PLOS One, they found that partisanship—measured as party identification, support for President Trump, or left-right ideological positioning—explained the differences in the views of Americans across a wide range of health behaviors and policy preferences. They found that these views were persistent, even when controlling for individual news consumption, the local policy environment, and local pandemic-related deaths. 

The Brookings Institution had similar findings. They found that the pandemic, which could conceivably have brought the country together, has instead contributed to our growing political divides. They concluded that partisan affiliation is often the strongest single predictor of behavior and attitudes about COVID-19, even more powerful than local infection rates or demographic characteristics, such as age and health status. They add that a states partisan orientation also explains its public health policies, including the timing and duration of stay-at-home orders, bans on social gathering, and mask mandates.

In a study by Bloomberg CityLab, they found differently. Americans tend to sort based on where they live, and the study covers more conservative and more liberal regions…expecting a significant partisan divide by region. We know that voters in our MSA [metropolitan statistical area] data are divided on national policy issues and that this divide is partly explained by party affiliation,” the study authors write. However, is that necessarily the case for local policy?” They concluded, not so much. They determined that while there are huge differences between Democrats and Republicans on a national scale—especially those who identify asstrong Democrats” and strong Republicans”—the study found very little difference at all between Democrats and Republicans on a number of local development issues. The chart below summarizes the main findings across these key local issues. 

They concluded that local needs and priorities are a large determinant of their views.

Meanwhile, a recent New York Times article shows that, despite firm political views, people can change their course of action. A study by the Kaiser Family Foundation tried to determine whether individuals who resisted the COVID-19 vaccination would later change their views. And if so, what were the primary factors. They conducted a national poll in January 2021 and found that 23 percent of the respondents said they were not going to take the vaccine. In a follow up survey, they found that nearly a quarter of those who responded “no” later became vaccinated.

They concluded that there are three reasons why this group changed their minds.

  • Seeing that millions of other Americans have been safely vaccinated was important. They may have been initially mistrustful of the vaccine. But the sheer numbers of people (including those locally) who were safely vaccinated made a difference. 
  • Hearing pro-vaccine messages from doctors, friends and relatives. The people who responded “no” appear to mistrust the media of messages from government leaders. However, they did take to heart messages from friends and relatives and their doctor…people they trust.
  • Learning that not being vaccinated will prevent people from doing some things. In some cases, access to travel or attend an event was limited to those who are vaccinated. In these situations, many simply decided to get the vaccine.

These “information snapshots” perhaps provide some insight to the question regarding whether national and state hyper-partisanship affects local communities. The first two studies affirm that the COVID-19 pandemic has become a partisan political issue and the dynamics are playing out in local communities where debates on required vaccinations and mask mandates are common. This has significantly complicated something (COVID-19) that would normally be a local community health issue. At the same time, the Bloomberg study shows that most people are actually less divided on local issues. Local needs and priorities tend to be the primary determinant for their position on most issues, rather than political party loyalty. Finally, the Kaiser Foundation study reminds us that some opinions, if not all, can change if local leaders strategically approach the issue. This is an important finding for elected leaders. Some strategies can be more effective than others in shaping public opinion on important, complex issues. And the most effective strategies may, or may not, be the preferred strategies endorsed by the two major political parties. This is where the importance of ethical leadership enters the picture.



June 2021

Ranked Choice Voting Gets a Big Test in New York City

New York City will be in the nation’s spotlight as it launches Ranked Choice Voting in the June 21st Mayoral Primary. States and cities across the nation are exploring the use of Ranked Choice Voting and Instant Runoff Voting as better alternatives to the traditional plurality voting system. Advocates believe that democracy works better if people are not forced into an “all or nothing” voting decision.

Here’s how the New York City program works. If one candidate gets more than 50% of the initial first-choice vote, that person wins the race outright. In this case, it is just like a traditional election. If nobody hits that threshold, the ranked choice analysis is then used. Vote tabulation is done in rounds. In each round, the candidate in last place is eliminated. Votes cast ranking that candidate first are then redistributed to those voters' second choices. That process repeats until there are only two candidates left. The one with the most votes wins. 

The ranked choice system is automated and the results at each step are quickly known. However, the entire voting process in New York City could take longer. Here are the steps to be followed:

  • Mail ballots were able to be cast through Tuesday, June 22nd, though it could take several additional days to arrive. A complete ranked choice analysis can't be done until those ballots are included.
  • After polls close at 9 p.m. Tuesday, New York City's Board of Elections plans to release data on where the vote count stands based only on people's first choices, and only for votes cast in person.
  • A week later, on June 29th, it will run its first ranked choice analysis, using only votes cast in person. Results will be posted on the board's website. They will show who the winner and runner-up would be if no votes had been cast by mail.
  • A week after that, on July 6th, the board will do another round of ranked choice analysis that includes all of the absentee ballots processed as of that date. If there are still uncounted or disputed ballots, the process will be run yet again on July 13th, and every subsequent Tuesday until a winner can be declared.

Rank Choice Voting is not the same as Final-Five Voting

In Wisconsin, bipartisan legislation has been introduced to provide Final-Five Voting for federal Congressional elections. The Wisconsin-Based nonpartisan organization, Democracy Found, has been the champion for this legislation. They point out that Final-Five Voting consists of two parts. The first is the Top-Five Primary: a single-ballot primary where the top-five candidates advance to the general election, regardless of party affiliation.

The second is the Instant-Runoff General Election: a grid-style, ranked-choice ballot, where voters pick their favorite candidate. They point out that voters can also pick their 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and last place candidates.

The first-choice votes are tallied and if one candidate gets over 50% (a majority), the election is over, and that candidate wins. If no one has a majority, an instant runoff is triggered. The last-place candidate is eliminated and voters who had chosen that candidate (who is now out of the race) have their single vote transferred to their next-choice. The votes are tallied again; the process continues until one candidate gets a majority.

Democracy Found adds that Ranked Choice Voting (RCV) is often used as a synonym for Instant Runoff Voting (IRV) because an Instant Runoff election is enabled by a ranked-choice ballot. However, Ranked-Choice Voting is an umbrella term whereas Instant Runoff Voting is more precise. The proposed Wisconsin legislation contains Instant Runoff Voting. 

Concern About Democracy

A driving force in the efforts to implement both Ranked Choice Voting and in Wisconsin, Final-Five Voting, is the growing concern that hyper partisanship is eroding the integrity of the American democracy. We are not seeing bipartisan solutions to some of the major problems faced. The current plurality voting model for primary and general elections is built upon disincentives for bipartisan collaboration. Katherine Gehl, co-author of The Politics Industry: How Political Innovation Can Break Partisan Gridlock and Save Our Democracy,describes this well.In her words,  FInal-Five Voting (FFV) is not designed primarily or necessarily to change who gets elected. Its designed to change what the winners are incented to accomplish and have the freedom to accomplish in Congress. This change in incentives is created, in part, by the power of shifting electoral competition from the primary to the general election. (i.e., Currently approximately 86% of House elections are decided in party primaries because they are in districts safe” for one party or the other. Therefore in 86% of races, the low-turnout primary, dominated by more ideological voters is the only race that matters. FFV flips this unhelpful dynamic: With FFV, the winner will come from the general election, not the primary. And FFV opens the general election to more competitors leading to healthy competition to serve the public interest.)”

It is encouraging that this conversation is occurring in Wisconsin, and similar efforts are underway in many corners throughout the nation. We believe the approach taken in Final-Five Voting aligns well with the four principles of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin...to encourage elected leaders who are truthful, transparent, unifiers who work to represent the interests of their entire constituency. We also recognize that the implementation of Final-Five Voting may take several legislative cycles to accomplish. It is a journey. But it is an important effort and a journey worth taking. The following is a list of the 22 cosponsors for SB 250/AB 244. We award a green light to them for taking their leadership position with this important legislation. If you support ethical leadership among elected officials, we encourage you to reach out to these legislators to thank them for their support for Final-Five Voting in Wisconsin.

Co-Authors

  1. Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield)
  2. Sen. Jeff Smith (D-Eau Claire)
  3. Rep. Tony Kurtz (R-Wonewoc)
  4. Rep. Daniel Riemer (D-Milwaukee)

Co-Sponsors

  1. Rep. Jimmy Anderson (D-Fitchburg)
  2. Rep. Deb Andraca (D-Whitefish Bay)
  3. Rep. Dave Considine (D-Baraboo)
  4. Rep. Alex Dallman (R-Green Lake)
  5. Rep. Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska)
  6. Rep. Dora Drake (D-Milwaukee)
  7. Rep. Jodi Emerson (D-Eau Claire)
  8. Rep. Gary Hebl (D-Sun Prairie)
  9. Rep. Joel Kitchens (R-Sturgeon Bay)
  10. Rep. Tip McGuire (D-Kenosha)
  11. Rep. Beth Meyers (D-Bayfield)
  12. Rep. Clint Moses (R-Menomonie)
  13. Rep. Todd Novak (R-Dodgeville)
  14. Rep. Katrina Shankland (D-Stevens Point)
  15. Rep. Ken Skowronski (R-Franklin)
  16. Rep. Lisa Subeck (D-Madison)
  17. Rep. Ron Tusler (R - Harrison)
  18. Rep. Don Vruwink (D-Milton)


May 2021

What Does Ethical Leadership Look Like?

At a time when the political parties are deeply divided, one might ask”what does ethical leadership look like.” To be certain, an elected leader should show their willingness to seek middle ground positions with political opponents. But it really goes beyond that. Their actions should also show sincerity in their willingness to listen (to the best of their ability) to their entire constituency. Finally, they should seek out ways to develop a coalition of support which may include members with opposing views including those from another political party. In recognition of this, it is worth noting the developments in federal police reform legislation that are under development in the U.S. Senate.

South Carolina Republican Senator Tim Scott introduced a police reform bill last year which failed to get traction. He has reintroduced a modified bill this year and he reports that his discussions with Democrats on the issue have been fruitful. This time, my friends on the left arent looking for the issue,” Scott said on CBSs Face The Nation on May 2, 2021. Theyre looking for a solution. And the things that I offered last year are more popular this year. That gives me reasons to be hopeful.”

He added, Weve made progress. We still have to make progress, but we have come a long way since last summer. The important principles that are still outstanding, I think weve made progress on all of them.”

Scott is in talks with Democratic New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, alongside members of the House, led by California Democratic Representative Karen Bass. Included in the informal discussions with Scott and Booker are members of a bipartisan group of House lawmakers known as the Problem Solvers Caucus.

In 2020, Republicans in the Senate had been reluctant to compromise with Democrats on the issue of police reform.  Under current Senate rules, a compromise bill approved in the House would require support from all Democrats and at least 10 Republicans to make it to President Joe Bidens desk. It has been reported that committee hearings on police reform have been held and continuing talks are underway. 

As reported in The Guardian, it appears that Congress is in a position to pass bipartisan legislation on police reform. Of course, there is always the possibility that could stall under external political pressure. However, the process underway is worth a look. Cory Booker has been an effective advocate. In our opinion, Tim Scott has done a noteworthy job in strategically reaching out to members of the other political party. He has thoughtfully listened to constituents. And he has developed a solid reputation for fairness among his Republican colleagues. These are key ingredients in crafting bipartisan legislation in 2021. We are hopeful that meaningful legislation on police reform will come forward this session. However, in any case, the actions taken by Tim Scott, as well as Cory Booker, are noteworthy and indicative of ethical leadership. They are indicative of unification and a commitment to represent their entire constituency. We feel a green light for both is clearly deserved.

April 2021

Gravitational Pull...Politicizing Nonpartisan Elections

April 6, 2020 was slated for nonpartisan elections in Wisconsin. The only statewide election was for the State Superintendent of Public Instruction position. The two candidates for this nonpartisan election were Jill Underly and Deb Kerr. Jill Underly was elected by a 58% to 42% margin. 


Though the position of State Superintendent is nonpartisan, the two major political parties were actively invested in the race, most notably the Democratic Party of Wisconsin which has donated $775,000 to Jill Underly's campaign for state superintendent. As of March 31, 2021, Underly outspent her opponent by a 7 to 1 margin.


It is also interesting to note that both candidates running for state superintendent are facing allegations from opposing political parties that they violated ethics rules for public officials. 

The Democratic Party of Wisconsin, has filed an ethics complaint regarding emails sent by Underly's opponent, Deb Kerr. Meanwhile, the Republican Party of Wisconsin filed its own ethics complaint regarding emails sent by Underly. The filings came in the final days of the campaign. 


The complaint  about Underly, as filed with the Wisconsin Ethics Commission, accuses her of violating statutes by using her district email address during work time to solicit information for political purposes. Underly, superintendent of the Pecatonica School District, sent emails from her district email address to other superintendents' district email addresses, asking them for their personal email addresses. She sent emails with this request at 11:44 a.m. and 12:45 p.m. on Monday, April 20, according to the Wisconsin State Journal

Meanwhile, the complaint from the Democratic Party of Wisconsin states that Kerr used her district email, in the last few months before her retirement, to talk about business for her new company, Lead Greatly LLC  — including correspondence during at least one school day. Specifically, she used school district resources — both her email address and school district time— and her position as Superintendent, to “solicit work for her consulting firm, to set up graphic design assets for her consulting firm, and to generate contacts for her consulting firm”.


Complaints of ethics violations in a nonpartisan election are not necessarily unusual. And it will ultimately be up to the Wisconsin Ethics Commission to determine the relative weight of the complaints being filed. However, it is particularly noteworthy that the complaints were not filed by the respective campaign organizations...rather they were filed by the two major political parties. Furthermore, both political parties contributed financially to back their preferred candidate. More than $1 million was contributed to both candidates by party-affiliated outside groups and, in the case of Jill Underly, more than half of all campaign funds raised came from the Democratic Party.


In describing the State Superintendent campaign, perhaps the most telling point is the general acceptance of political party engagement in a  nonpartisan election. In the April 7, 2021 edition, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel describes this election as evidence that the “Democrats are on a roll” in statewide elections. We are at a point where there is a general public acceptance of political party engagement, including money from outside interests, in nonpartisan elections. Unfortunately, this also leads to the blending of partisan and nonpartisan issues.


Political Convergence?

Convergence is the tendency for technologies that were originally unrelated to become more closely integrated and even unified as they develop and advance. This has had a profound impact on media and is a direct consequence of the digitization of media content and the popularization of the Internet. Media convergence transforms established industries, services, and work practices and enables entirely new forms of content to emerge. Convergence blurs and blends the barriers between global, national and local information. A local story can rapidly become national news. And a national story can become part of the complex fabric in addressing a local issue. 


This raises a question whether we are experiencing a form of political convergence, where the political parties and party-aligned media are injecting partisan dynamics into nonpartisan elections and the way the issues surrounding them are framed. This can tend to reinforce the polarization of seemingly nonpartisan issues into “Democratic” or “Republican” issues. This adds weight to the process of reaching consensus at all levels of government. It can shift the emphasis (and allegiance) away from “what is good for constituents” toward “what is good for the political party”. Both the Democratic Party of Wisconsin and the Republican Party of Wisconsin have earned red flags for their extensive involvement in a nonpartisan election.


Jill Underly and Deb Kerr were able to convey their respective positions on the issues leading up to the election. But neither candidate attempted to separate their campaign from the two major political parties. Consequently, it was not possible to determine the degree either candidate would become beholding to the political party after the election. This is not a healthy situation for the voters in a nonpartisan election. It certainly does not focus on meeting the needs of the entire constituency....those not affiliated with either political party. We issue a red flag for both Jill Underly and Deb Kerr.




March 2021


Recognition for Ethical Leadership...The LeaderEthics Award

 At the March 23, 2021 annual meeting, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognized Representative Steve Doyle (D) and former Representative Lee Nerison (R) with the 2021 LeaderEthics Award. Both have served as distinguished representatives in their respective western Wisconsin districts and they have been champions for collaborative efforts to address issues facing our state. Board president, Brandon Harris reports, "The board was very impressed with the calibre of nominees submitted. We were faced with a very difficult decision." Executive Director, Lee Rasch adds, "This is the first time we are offering this award. We find it very encouraging to have true role models for ethical leadership among elected officials." Rasch adds, "One of the symptoms of the partisan divide is a breakdown of trust in government. Along with that, there may be a failure to recognize ethical leadership in practice. The fact is...we do have elected officials who work to support the principles of ethical leadership, and as a result, are good role models."

Steve Doyle currently serves as the Wisconsin Assembly Representative for the 94th district. He has served in that role since 2011. In April of 2020, he was named the most bipartisan Assembly representative by the Wisconsin Legislative Reference Bureau. The LRB performed a review and found that the Democratic 94th District Representative co-authored the highest number of bills initiated by both Republicans and Democrats during his time in office.

Representative Doyle said a divided government better serves the people because it helps to maintain balance. In response to receiving this recognition, Steve Doyle said. "I like the fact, surprising as it may seem, that I'm a Democrat in a Republican controlled legislature because I can help bring people to the middle."

Lee Nerison served as the Assembly Representative for the 96th district in Wisconsin from 2004 through 2018. Throughout his career, he had established a reputation for his independence and for his ability to solve problems through bipartisanship. As a demonstration of his independence, in 2011, Lee was one of only 5 Republicans who did not vote to support Act 10, despite considerable party pressure to support this prominent, high-profile legislation. He simply stated that he listened to his constituents and voted accordingly. During his seven terms in office, Lee was respected for his trustworthiness by his constituents. For example, in one election, despite being outspent in campaign spending by his opponent by an amount several times over, he was re-elected. The voters knew and trusted Lee Nerison.

Steve Doyle and Lee Nerison worked collaboratively on a number of pieces of legislation over the years. In 2019, they were co-presenters at the first Candidate Development Workshop for LeaderEthics-Wisconsin. The participants gave very high ratings for their message.

As elected officials, both Steve Doyle and Lee Nerison have earned their recognition with the LeaderEthics Award as role models for the four principles of ethical leadership. And it goes without saying, they have earned a big “green light” from LeaderEthics-Wisconsin.


February 2021

Can We Keep Our Republic?

By Rusty Cunningham

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.” – Voltaire

As someone considered an Enemy of the American People, I continue to think that facts are powerful. Call me old-fashioned, but truth matters.

As weve watched the great hall of democracy denigrated, LeaderEthics-Wisconsin continues to stand for leaders who are honest and truthful, transparent with public information, a unifier rather than a divider, and committed to represent the entire constituency. Is that really asking too much? Not when you consider whats at stake.

Were still dealing with the pandemic and worried about limited supplies of vaccine. Do leadership and government response matter? Were dealing with disastrous weather in parts of our nation not used to cold, snow and ice. Do leadership and government response matter? Every day, we expect our government to protect us, to keep us safe, to show leadership and respond to our needs.That expectation must remain high. If you find the shameful scenes of Jan. 6 revolting, good. If youre ready to throw up your hands and throw in the towel, dont. This is exactly when high expectations of strong ethical behavior must be upheld.

Yes, we all need to turn down the volume and watch our rhetoric. But it is not the time to ignore our principles, to relax our expectations. The old management maxim says you can expect what you inspect. Thats what LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is all about – setting ethical expectations and holding leaders accountable.

In his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography,Washington: A Life,” Ron Chernow writes that George Washington believed that the Constitution can only lay the foundation – the community at large must raise the edifice.” And Chernow writes about the legend of Benjamin Franklin leaving the constitutional deliberations and bumping into a woman he knew, who asked about the form of government that the framers were working to develop. A republic, madam, if you can keep it,” Franklin replied.

Weve kept it through a Civil War and through so many scandals. And well keep it as long as we continue to be vigilant, to question, to expect ethical leadership from the people elected and sworn to represent us. This is not the time to fall for absurdities. The atrocities of Jan. 6 remind us that what we expect, and what we inspect, will frame whether we can keep our republic.

Rusty Cunningham retired from the position of Executive Editor at the La Crosse Tribune in 2020. He is doing freelance work in news media, while enjoying new found flexibility for hobbies and personal interests.

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January 2021

Instant Runoff Voting...The Time Has Come

History can be insightful. In the case of the great experiment...the American democracy...this statement clearly resonates. Entering 2021, we face the challenges of extreme partisanship and the growing political divide in our country. In the minds of many, political party loyalty supersedes all else. It is small wonder that many people are discouraged. It is important to remember that in our nation’s history, in the latter part of the nineteenth century, we were here before. For example, candidates for elected office were appointed by the political parties, often connected to some form of payment. The post-Civil War period was a challenging time for the American democracy. The frustration of citizens at that time led to dramatic efforts to restore integrity to the American democracy and to open new avenues for citizen involvement...the Progressive Era. Primarily on a state by state basis, a number of laws were enacted during this period, many of which remain in place today.

At this time, the levels of frustration are once again very high. And similar to the pre-Progressive Era, state by state efforts are surfacing. There is a growing effort in many states to take actions to restore balance and integrity in the voting process. One such effort is referred to as Ranked Choice Voting (the effort is called Final Four Voting in the State of Alaska and Instant Runoff Voting in Wisconsin). There are unique approaches in differing states, but the core concept is the same (In order to avoid confusion, we will refer to the Wisconsin version in this article, Instant Runoff Voting-IRV). IRV differs from traditional voting in two critical ways. First, instead of a Republican primary and a Democrat primary, voters will cast their ballots in one, nonpartisan primary election. From the primary, up to five candidates can proceed to the general election. Then, in the general election, voters will be able to rank these final five” in order of preference. For a single office, like for a mayor or governor, IRV helps to elect a candidate who reflects a majority of voters in a single election even when several viable candidates are in the race. Instant runoff voting is a way to ensure elections are fair for all voters by allowing voters the option to rank candidates in order of preference using the Instant Runoff Voting process. 

Here's How It Works*

In races where voters select one winner, if a candidate receives more than half of the first choices, that candidate wins, just like in any other election. However, if there is no majority winner after counting first choices, the race is decided by an "instant runoff." The candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated, and voters who picked that candidate as ‘number 1’ will have their votes count for their next choice. This process continues until there’s a majority winner or a candidate won with more than half of the vote. For further explanation, watch this IRV Video.

Proponents of IRV tout the advantages. The process gives more options to voters across the political spectrum, thus serving as a counter-weight to the  domination in the candidate selection process by extremists in both parties. This opens the door to increased bipartisan voting to address challenging policy issues. Proponents also claim that IRV provides a disincentive to negative advertising, since candidates are more likely to recognize the importance of a higher ranking, even if another candidate may get the top vote. The case for Instant Runoff Voting is well stated in the book The Politics Industry, by Katherine Gehl and Michael Porter. Gehl is the former owner of Gehl Foods. She has been active publicly as.... Michael Porter is a noted author and professor in the Harvard Business School.  As Gehl and Porter state, the politics industry is a duopoly whose primary interest is to protect the status quo. If an elected official strays from the party line, they are subject to being “primaried” in the next election. Partisan primary elections tend to have low turnout, led by voters with the most extreme positions. For those whose main interest is political survival, the answer is to avoid bipartisan compromise and follow the party line.

A variation of Instant Runoff Voting is used for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Alaska and Maine and for local elections in more than 20 US cities including: Cambridge, Massachusetts; San Francisco, California; Oakland, California; Berkeley, California; San Leandro, California; Takoma Park, Maryland; St. Paul, Minnesota; Minneapolis, Minnesota; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Portland, Maine; Las Cruces, New Mexico; and St. Louis Park, Minnesota. New York City is by far the largest voting population in the US that has opted for IRV, pending implementation in 2021. IRV is commonly used for student leadership and other non-governmental elections. It was used by all voters in four states in the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries. 

The Effort by States and the Hurdles

Similar to the Progressive Era, we are seeing action taking place at the state level. Two prominent leaders are the states of Maine and Alaska. In Maine, the Instant Runoff Voting initiative (Measure 5) was approved by the voters on November 8, 2016. In Maine, several lawsuits followed the passage of that states ranked-choice ballot measure in 2016. The Maine State Senate requested that the Maine Supreme Judicial Court issue an advisory opinion on the constitutionality of instant runoff voting, which was adopted for statewide elections via initiative in November 2016. In their ruling, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court advised that Maine's instant runoff voting law conflicted with the Maine Constitution, but ruled it could be used for federal congressional elections. The new process was used in the November 2020 election. 

In Alaska, the instant runoff voting measure was approved by 50.6% of voters in the November 2020 general election and is slated to take effect in February. The Alaska measure was threefold, and the wording follows :

  • Requiring persons and entities that contribute more than $2000 that were themselves derived from donations, contributions, dues or gifts to disclose the true sources (as defined in law) of political contributions;
  • Replacing partisan primaries with open top-four primaries for state executive, state legislature and congressional offices;
  • Establishing ranked-choice voting for general elections, including the presidential election, in which voters would rank the candidates.

Alaskas measure is broader than Maines. It will eliminate the states system of partisan primary elections. Instead, all state candidates for each political office would compete in the same primary election. The top four vote-getters, regardless of party, advance to the general election. As was the case in Maine, the issue is now facing legal challenges. The timing of any legal challenges are such that even if the measures would be overturned, the issue would be in effect for the 2022. It should be stated, in both states, there was opposition from both political parties.

Meanwhile in Wisconsin, there are plans to introduce legislation that would allow instant runoff voting for congressional positions. A bipartisan group of state legislators has been identified that will introduce legislation in 2021. Supporters recognize the challenges ahead. The Wisconsin Legislature has been largely inactive for the last twelve months and there is a long list of issues on the agenda. The partisan divide is significant, particularly between the Republican-dominated Legislature and the Democratic Governor. And the November election has surfaced a large constituency that is questioning the very integrity of the election process. Add to that, there exists and reluctance be either party to change the status quo. Make no mistake, it will take persistence for Wisconsin Instant Runoff Voting initiative to become law. But we encourage people to follow these developments and lend support where needed. It is time to follow in the footsteps of the Progressive Era and to fix this cornerstone of the American democracy...the election process.

*Source: FairVote 

December 2020

It's Never Too Late to Recognize the Right Thing

There is a quote often attributed to Nelson Mandela, but more appropriately credited to author Nicholas Sparks...It’s never too late to do the right thing. The reference can be applied in many aspects of life. We learn as we move through life and surrounding conditions can evolve. The quote is framed to remind us that, despite our beliefs and past actions, we should not be bound by them once we realize that a better path exists. This quote is worth our reflection. We may look back at our beliefs and past actions with some degree of regret. From there, we have a choice. We can double down our position. Or we can now “do the right thing”. Of course, we cannot change the past. The latter option reminds us of the importance of the actions we take today. We cannot change the past, but we can take steps to influence the future.


This is a truism in all aspects of life, including politics. To be certain, there is political pressure to support partisan positions. But as conditions evolve, there may be opportunities to reach out to members of the other political party. Such is the case in an ad that was developed by the Stop the Covid Spread Coalition. In this nonpartisan ad, Congressman Mark Pocan (Democrat) and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos (Republican) jointly promote safe practices in response to the expanded impact of the COVID pandemic in Wisconsin. The message is clear. COVID-19 is not a “left” or “right” issue, but a public health issue. Many of us have questioned why leaders in the two major political parties have not taken similar collaborative steps at an earlier stage of the pandemic. However, in the words of Nicholas Sparks, the options boil down to rationalizing the missteps or missed opportunities of the past, or do the right thing now. Fortunately, Congressman Pocan and Speaker Vos opted for the latter.



Another example of bipartisan collaborative messaging is worth noting. State Representatives Steve Doyle (D-Onalaska), Jill Billings (D-La Crosse), and Loren Oldenburg (R-Viroqua) released a joint statement on December 1, 2020 asking for cooperation with masking, distancing and sanitation guidelines:


Recently we had the opportunity to participate in a webinar where a number of medical professionals discussed their current day-to-day experiences as hospital workers during this pandemic. The stories that the hospital staff shared show the reality, and the severity of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Wisconsin Hospital Association is asking that we all work together to stop the spread.


We are in the midst of a public health crisis. Across the state our hospitals are filling up or are already full, and in some cases, are sending sick people home to make room for the sickest of the sick. In addition, our medical staff are overburdened, stretched too thin, facing their own quarantines, or are so burned out that they cannot continue to work. We can each do our part to help stop the spread of COVID-19. The Wisconsin Hospital Association asks us to wear a mask, wash our hands & socially distance. We need to slow the spread to give our hospitals time to heal those already in their care. If we follow the CDC and Wisconsin Hospital Associations guidelines together we can accomplish this goal. Please join us in frequently washing your hands, staying socially distant, cleaning and disinfecting frequently used surfaces, covering your coughs and sneezes, and wearing a mask when you are in public, or around people who arent a part of your household. When we all take these steps we can slow the spread.”


Collaborative messages such as these are vitally important. In a climate of political divisiveness, they can be met with outspoken skepticism and negativity. But many citizens very much welcome this approach. It serves as a reminder that we face a common enemy, not the opposing political party, but COVID-19. Mark Pocan, Robin Vos, Steve Doyle, Jill Billings and Loren Oldenburg have earned a green light for their collaborative efforts.


The quote by Nicholas Sparks is “It’s never too late to do the right thing”. The message provided in this quote is true for us as citizens. Given the politically divided conditions in our country, there will be pushback for elected officials who make public collaborative statements. But we can provide words of support for these actions. This does not mean we agree with all of the policy positions the politicians may represent. It does mean, when we see elected officials acting as unifiers, rather than dividers, we have an opportunity to provide recognition. In this regard, we can adopt the Sparks statement with a slight modification...”It’s never too late to recognize the right thing”.


As members of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, you may wish to provide recognition for these legislators. You can send a message via email to the following addresses:

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November 2020

Misinformation...Where to begin...where do we go from here?


"I ask myself, what is the fastest way to destroy democracy? The fastest way to destroy democracy is to poison information." Scott Pelley

Where to begin

On November 3rd, voters elected Mark Kelly (D) as the new Senator for the State of Arizona and Young Kim (R) new Member of Congress in Southern California. These are fresh faces with an opportunity for adding their perspectives to their new role. It will be interesting to learn how they navigate given the current climate of political divisiveness in a time of rampant misinformation.

Right after Election Day, Katy Byron of The Poynter Report tweeted that if Joe Biden won the election, there was going to be an explosion of disinformation online, the likes of which we have never seen.” It now looks like this was a very prophetic statement. The Presidential election has demonstrated the profound political divisions in our country. The political division has grown in the last decade (Pew Research Center). And throughout history, our nation has experienced periods of profound political divisiveness. This in itself is not new. However, what has emerged in the last five years is the growing impact of misinformation as a major, complicating variable. Quite literally, since November 3rd, our nation finds itself in the midst of a veritable flood of misinformation.

In looking at the dynamics of today’s misinformation, and the impact on newly elected leaders (such as Senator Kelly and Representative Kim), there is a basic question...where do we begin? There are so many swirling issues. In this article, we are going to focus on three variables: social media, national news media and President Trump. In a future edition of The Ethics Report, we will take a deeper dive into some of the other variables such as the rural/urban divide and cultural elitism.

Social Media

The evidence supports the increased public concern about the impact of misinformation on social media.  About two-thirds of Americans (64%) say social media has a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today, according to a Pew Research Center survey of U.S. adults conducted July 13-19, 2020. Just one-in-ten Americans say social media sites have a mostly positive effect on the way things are going, and one-quarter say these platforms have a neither positive nor negative effect. Those who have a negative view of the impact of social media mention, in particular, misinformation and the hate and harassment they see. Additionally, Democrats bemoan social medias role in fomenting partisanship and polarization, the creation of echo chambers. Meanwhile, Republicans maintain that these platforms oppose President Donald Trump and conservatives, according to Pew Research.

Opening Pandora’s Box

It is hard to describe how dramatically social media has grown as a political tool in the last 10 to 12 years. In the book, Mindf*ck, Christopher Wylie describes his role in harvesting data from Facebook, Instagram and Twitter as an employee of the firm, Cambridge Analytica. As a whistleblower, he testified at a U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee hearing. Facebook provided open access to their data, with out cost, because of a company policy to provide their data to education institutions. The problem was that Cambridge Analytica was a partisan enterprise, not an education program. They simply rented an office on the Cambridge campus. Their program was able to identify users who would be prone to respond to hate and racist misinformation. The Senate Intelligence Committee recognized that Cambridge Analytica was an influence in the 2016 election and they have since been put out of business. But the data remained on the social media platforms and other users have stepped up their efforts to harvest that information...essentially following the Cambridge Analytica model. In October 2020, the Senate Commerce Committee brought in the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and and Google to address concerns about social media regulation. Unfortunately, the hearing revealed social media regulation has  devolved into a partisan issue, with Democrats seeking more scrutiny and Republicans seeking an unregulated approach.

It is worth noting that the presidential election exacerbated these dynamics. Since November 3rd, social media users on nearly every platform have spread rumors of discarded ballots, mysterious new votes and sudden halts in the vote-counting process to raise doubts about Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s gains in battleground states. 

National News Media

While rumors have been rampant on social media, traditional news organizations have been wrestling with reporting the facts, reporting the dynamics of misinformation coming from the highest levels in government and responding to their consumers who are clamoring for conspiracy information.The Poynter Report tracks the performance of news organizations. They raised concerns about Fox News. While the daytime news at Fox is taking a reputable approach at reporting the news in a time of misinformation (including making disclaimers about baseless statements from the White House), the evening pundits have been doing otherwise. According to Poynter, “The type of rhetoric put out by some of the Fox News and Fox Business personalities is dangerous. It harms our democracy, fosters divisiveness, creates chaos and might even insight violence”. In simple terms, national media organizations a) report the news, b) provide commentary, and c) provide entertainment. It becomes a problem when consumers do not distinguish the difference.

President Trump

It appears that one source of misinformation is the President. Many of the rumors found a home in the social media accounts of President Donald Trump, his campaign and his family. Trump and his family have amplified false and misleading posts alleging voter fraud since the early morning hours of November 4th. Reliable sources in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia have determined that there is no viable evidence of widespread election fraud.

In a specific example, President Trump tweeted about signature-matching in Georgia and criticized Secretary of State Raffensperger for his management of the state elections: Georgia Secretary of State, a so-called Republican (RINO), wont let the people checking the ballots see the signatures for fraud. Why? Without this the whole process is very unfair and close to meaningless. Everyone knows that we won the state.” It should be noted that this is but one example of many alleging voter fraud since November 3rd.

The New York Times reported that President Trump made over 300 tweets between November 3rd and November 16th criticizing the legitimacy of the election. A number of lawsuits were filed. To date, 14 of these lawsuits were dismissed. The one exception involved an accommodation for observers to be able to be closer to the vote count...a very minor determination. There has been some speculation that the delay in reaching a concession has served two purposes. It has appeased disappointed Trump voters by “putting up a fight”. It has also helped to raise monies for the legal fund. Ironically, the clause in the contribution statement specified that up to 60% of the contribution may be used to retire campaign debt. President Trump has earned a red flag for his untruthful exit following the election.

Where do we go from here?

The question on everyone’s mind...where do we go from here? Nearly 80 million Americans voted for Joe Biden, an all time record for a presidential election in the U.S. However, nearly 74 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, a total which exceeds the previous high water mark for presidential votes. We are a nation divided. The exacerbating factor of misinformation is particularly troublesome.

Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson recently stated that it appears that half the country will not recognize Joe Biden as president. "It's very unfortunate that no matter who wins, the other half of America is not going to view this as a particularly legitimate election,"  Johnson said. "That's a real problem. I am not saying it is legitimate or not. I am saying this process has been set up where people are not going to view it as legitimate. And that's a real problem." Senator Johnson has earned a red flag for the missed opportunity to point out election integrity...a step toward unification.

So the road ahead looks long. Elected leaders will be faced with a dilemma. In terms of the election outcome, shall they tell their constituents what they want to hear, remain silent, or share the truth? As of right now, many Republican leaders are remaining silent. The power of misinformation is potent.

It will be interesting to see how Senator Mark Kelly and Representative Young Kim respond to the dilemma. Perhaps fresh voices can help to begin the bridge building process. Time will tell.

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October 2020

Bipartisanship is a more than splitting the difference

The November 2020 election is considered to be a high stakes determination on a number of important policy issues. One area at stake is bipartisanship. This is not a legislative policy, rather it is a pathway to address policy issues. Bipartisanship has fallen into a pattern of disuse. The partisan divide has more than doubled in the last decade according to the Pew Research Center. The Pew Research Center has determined that political party loyalty is the overwhelming factor in the growing partisan divide (when compared to age, level of education, religious attendance, race or gender). Why is that? There are a number of reasons. To be certain, both political parties have been actively promoting strategies to prevail on policy issues through achieving a political majority...a winner takes all approach. This in itself is not new, though there has been a conscious effort to bypass some of the balancing legislative protocols such as the conference committee and the filibuster. The phrase "elections matter" is often heard today. Of course, this is not the first time our nation has been deeply divided. To be certain, we were divided during the Vietnam Nam war period. But there are other emerging factors at play today. As we have discussed in past issues of The Ethics Report, there is a convergence of 1) a dramatic rise in reliance on social media and 2) the expertly designed interference to divide Americans. For example, in 2016, the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence  determined that the Russian Internet Research Agency (IRA) inserted extensive fabricated posts on social media, designed play upon partisan fears and racial animosity. The campaign of fabricated posts by the IRA led to more than 31 million “likes” and “shares” on Facebook and Instagram. Remember, these were fabricated posts, designed to divide U.S. citizens and erode the integrity of the American democracy.

    What do voters think about bipartisanship?

    It appears that voters have mixed feelings about bipartisanship. Many view the divisive political climate with concern. The 2019 Pew Research Center study showed 85 percent of Americans feel the political climate to be less respectful, fact-based and substantive. It raises a legitimate question...can America truly be great if our nation is so deeply divided?

    At the same time, there are conscious efforts to promote bipartisanship. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin recognizes the work of the Bipartisan Policy Center https://bipartisanpolicy.org/ , a think tank that promotes bipartisan solutions to many of the nation’s most pressing policy issues. BPC has developed suggested policy statements and pathways for addressing: Campus Free Expression, Corporate Governance, Economy, Education, Elections, Governance, Health, Immigration, Infrastructure, and Technology. These policy solutions are intended to provide viable options for members of the two major political parties to craft legislation that will measurably improve or address conditions. And the policy solutions are intended to inform citizens that viable bipartisan options do exist. 

    We also like the work of Braver Angels https://braverangels.org/. This organization promotes civil dialog among citizens with both firmly-held conservative and liberal views. Their approach involves grassroots workshops held in various communities all around the country. Their goal is to help citizens better understand and respectfully listen to and consider the views of others. 

    But at the same time, the political parties are promoting negative advertising in record numbers. According to NBC News a report by Advertising Analytics projects campaign advertising in 2020 to reach $6.7 billion, most of which will be spent on attack ads. Although people report that they are tired of the negative advertising, it continues to thrive. To quote Joe Heim, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin - La Crosse, negative advertising survives “because it works”. It is difficult for an elected official to endure a nasty campaign, and then turn around and embrace the opposition responsible for the negativity.

    Can the partisan divide be healed?

    The future prospects of increased bipartisanship are uncertain. The public appears to be growing weary of the extreme political divisiveness. But it is an uphill struggle to overcome the forces that promote the divide. Efforts by groups like the Bipartisan Policy Center and Braver Angels help because they encourage public awareness regarding the viability and benefits of well-crafted bipartisanship. This is an essential step in the uphill climb. Voters must first recognize that a bipartisan approach can lead to better and more lasting outcomes for everyone. From there, voters must support candidates who actively engage in bipartisan efforts. People must believe that “bipartisanship works”.

    Bipartisanship is more than splitting the difference

    The initial steps toward increased bipartisanship are important, but there will be limited results unless elected officials actively work to support their entire constituency (which you may recognize as one of the four principles of ethical leadership). This involves engaging with members on the other side of the aisle to better understand their viewpoint and to build trust. This requires an open mind. Ronald Reagan said about the evolving relations with the former Soviet Union, “trust, but verify”. That process involves both formal and informal engagement and communication. An example of the formal approach is the Select Committee for the Modernization of Congress, a bipartisan committee in the U.S. House of Representatives. As stated by Chair Derek Kilmer and Vice Chair Tom Graves, “This committees mission is to make Congress work better for the American people, which includes boosting transparency and finding ways to open up the Peoples House with just a click of a mouse”. Engagement and communication can also be done informally. A wonderful example is the friendship between Supreme Court Justices Anthony Scalia (a conservative) and Ruth Bader Ginsberg (a liberal). Their philosophy on law was significantly different, yet their friendship was real. They certainly earn a posthumous green light from our organization.


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    September 2020


    Without Expectations, Is Moral Character Possible?


    Jeh Johnson, former Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Barack Obama spoke at the convocation at Liberty University, the Christian school with more than 100,000 students enrolled. Liberty University is recognized for its conservative core philosophy. Johnson is considered to be a trusted lieutenant of Barack Obama. 

    He spoke of five traits that constitute a good leader: “tell the truth, build consensus, be inclusive, never ask someone to do something you wouldnt do yourself, and follow the Golden Rule”.

    He went on to state, We no longer expect our political leaders to tell us the truth and we no longer expect our political leaders to play by the rules. Our expectations of our political leaders have sunk so low we now accept from them personal behavior that would be unacceptable for our children, our students, our employees, or cadets, soldiers, sailors, airmen or Marines under our military command.” He added that leaders too often seek to gain attention by pandering to our fears, our suspicions and our prejudices.” He did not specify names or examples, allowing the students to draw their own conclusions.

    His remarks regarding the five traits of leadership bear a strong resemblance to the four principles of ethical leadership: truthfulness, transparency, acting as a unifier and representing all constituents. Although his remarks clearly address leadership behavior, he was also speaking to the expectations of citizens. He was asking the students at Liberty University...why do we accept behavior from political leaders that we would not accept from family, friends, co-workers or employees?

    The Dynamics of Political Party Loyalty

    Political polarization is a major factor of influence on the words and actions of leaders. Conservative author David French, in the September 11, 2020 article in The Dispatch, The French Press, takes note of this dynamic. In the subsequent dialog following the revelation in the Bob Woodward book, Rage, where President Trump revealed that he knew that COVID-19 was far deadlier than the flu, many saw it as an issue of untruthfulness. French stated, “When critics of the president declared, beginning even in 2015, that character is destiny, -this is what we meant. When the time would come to tell the hard truths, the president was likely to fail—and fail he did.” He also added, “Ive seen folks in the conservative media—including friends of mine—argue that if the president had been sounding the alarm accurately and consistently that he would have faced immediate pushback from the Democrats and the media. I agree that the reality of negative polarization means that there are too many people who oppose anything Trump says simply because Trump said it.” French goes on to add, “But that does not relieve the president of the obligation to tell the truth.” Such is the challenge of leadership in these politically polarized times, certainly for ethical leadership. Jeh Johnson is calling for leaders to follow their moral compass, even though they will face intense criticism, regardless of their position. Donald Trump has earned a red flag, perhaps the largest red flag awarded as of yet, for his admission that he was aware of the seriousness of COVID-19, yet he wanted to play it down rather than speak out with transparency.

    Does the burden of ethical leadership lie solely on leaders?

    The research supports the importance of leaders as role models. In many ways, leaders can help shape the actions and beliefs of others. And even though in the American democracy, we elect representatives as well as those that serve in the executive branch of government, all elected officials (for better or worse) are role models. In a time of intense political polarization, we need leaders who work at unification...leaders who are willing to do the heavy lifting...leaders as described by Jeh Johnson.

     It we also need to cultivate the expectation of ethical leadership among citizens. That is what Johnson was referring to when he said we are finding ourselves accepting from political leaders “personal behavior that would be unacceptable” for others in everyday life. In fact, our silence is beyond acceptance, it reflects endorsement.

    What can citizens do to raise the expectation of ethical leadership? 

    In the American democracy, we are provided the opportunity in a number of ways. We can band together to address “large scale” issues. For example, in the November 2019 issue of The Ethics Report, we talked about the work of the “Badass Grandmas of North Dakota”, who succeeded in passing a state constitutional amendment in 2018 to address the lack transparency in state government. They accomplished this even though they were outspent by the opposition 20 to 1. Clearly, average citizens can achieve some amazing things. But there are also “small scale” steps citizens can take at the local level. They can raise questions about truthfulness, transparency, unification and across-the-board representation at local candidate forums. They can express their thoughts to traditional and social media sources. They can support candidates that exemplify the values of ethical leadership. Indeed, these “small scale” steps, in the aggregate, can at times have an even greater effect than some of the “large scale” efforts because they start at the local level where change can be more readily embraced. For example, candidates who are seeking to be elected to the state assembly are going to be more in tune with the stated beliefs in their home community. Imagine the effect if the conversation on ethical leadership is occurring in many communities across the state and nation. Citizens are role models too.

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                August 2020                   

    The Presidential Election: Things We Don't Like...Things We Like

    2020 will be a year many of us would like to forget. The pandemic, the economic downturn and the partisan divisiveness have taken a toll. And the presidential election has become fully embroiled in these elements in an ongoing and seemingly endless way. Yet, despite these conditions, there may be some watershed moments in this year's election as well. Some things, born out of necessity in 2020, may become part of the new way forward in future years. At the risk of sounding pretentious, here are some things we don't like about this year's election...and some things we like.

    • We don't like the extreme negativity of the ads. Of course, negative ads are not new. And as political science leaders explain, they are used because the data supports that they energize the support base for the campaign(s) that use(s) them. However, in this year's cycle, the ads began actively running nearly a year ahead of the November election. Many are very weary of the ads.
    • We don't like the way the pandemic has become a political issue. The President's performance in a time of crisis is an appropriate point for election debate. However, the issues of face masks and business closings have evolved into an emotional partisan debate, pitting individual freedom against public health. For our country, this is a lose/lose debate. 
    • We don't like the way the President is casting doubt (through repeated tweets and public statements) on the integrity of the election if mail-in voting becomes the predominant format for voting in November 2020. There is nothing more vitally important to the American democracy than the integrity of the voting process. It is the responsibility of the President and the Congress to ensure voting integrity. Casting doubt on the integrity of the election, without taking appropriate action, is simply irresponsible.
    • We don't like foreign governments interfering with the elections in the U.S. Through the efforts of the FBI, CIA and Department of Homeland Security, many of these attempts have been exposed and thwarted. However, the President should be taking a strong stand against these interference efforts. To date, his words and actions on this issue are lukewarm at best.

    Of course, there are a number of other items that could make the "don't like" list. These are the ones that stand out most for us. However, there are also some things on our "do like" list.

    • We do like some of the virtual elements from the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention. The traditional DNC and RNC has devolved into a stale, tradition-bound process that has little significance to the electoral process. The virtual elements introduced this year brought in variety and engagement lacking in recent years. In future national elections, there will not be (hopefully) a pandemic to address. However, hopefully some of the virtual creativity and innovation remains.
    • We do like the way groups have organized to protect and promote the integrity of the electoral process. One example is the national VoteSafe Coalition process. This process is developing in many states. It involves developing a bipartisan coalition of prominent current and former elected leaders to promote voting...and safe voting in the upcoming election, despite the conditions of the pandemic. At a time of extreme partisanship, these bipartisan efforts are like a big breath of fresh air.

    Of course it is important to remember that there are still more than two months to go (as of this writing) before the November 3rd election. And there may be developments that are yet to unfold. The vital element to consider, regardless of the things you do not like, or like, about the election? It is important to vote. The American democracy may not be perfect, but in the absence of active and engaged citizen voting, all of the alternative outcomes are much worse.

    Lee Rasch

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    July 2020


    The Heavy Lifting of Leadership for Elected Officials


    Is the American Democracy fractured? What is causing the cracks? By all accounts, the growing partisan divide and “silo mentality" of the major political parties is a major factor.

    In 1988, Phil S. Ensor coined the term “silo mentality” which described the condition where the subsystems or departments in an organization are in conflict. For example, different departments may fight for budget dollars, head count and control over direction, seemingly intent on winning no matter the effect on the overall company or organization. 

    In large corporations, silos can get so intense as to bring the competitive drive of the company to a halt. Ironically, the participants in the conflict often do not recognize the damage being caused. Silos can develop anywhere. Unfortunately, they are also common in healthcare and higher education.

    Over the years, there have been numerous studies on the silo mentality and how to overcome it. Nearly all conclude that leadership is an essential factor. Leaders can communicate common, overriding goals that are essential for organization success. They incorporate cross-divisional communication practices. They can reward teamwork. They can call out internal conflict and remove people, if needed, who are the repeated source of conflict. In other words, they can do the “heavy lifting” needed to break down the silo mentality. On the flip side, if leaders ignore or contribute to the conflict, the climate worsens. In my words, all hell breaks loose.

    Silos and turf wars are particularly challenging in the political environment, where the political parties have differing interests. The growing partisanship differences between Democrats and Republicans are inherently more challenging because the differing interests can be very fluid and, in some cases, lack integrity. At the national level, the President, the Senate Majority Leader and the Speaker of the House can play a major role in defining the common, overriding goals. This is not happening now, despite the presence of an apolitical national threat in COVID-19. However, all elected officials at the national, state and local levels also bear some responsibility of the partisan fractures. This is clearly the case for those elected officials who refuse to reach out to members of the other side. 

    To be certain, campaign funding from special interest groups, media bias and misinformation on social media can make “reaching out to the other side” very difficult. But many Americans are seeking bipartisan solutions as exemplified by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Jefferson-Hamilton Award for Bipartisanship. The U.S. Chamber is the world’s largest business organization and they recognize the inherent problems associated with a deeply divided political climate. It is a challenge in today’s climate for any elected official to take on the heavy lifting of bipartisan leadership. But it is needed now more than ever. Elected officials can be readily accused of selling out to the other party. Therefore it is important to support citizen efforts to promote positive examples bipartisanship. The U.S Chamber of Commerce has earned a green light for the Jefferson-Hamilton Award.

    Of course, when we vote, every citizen has the opportunity to recognize those elected officials who are willing to do the heavy lifting. As citizens, through voting, we can step outside of the partisanship silo. We can recognize the damage that is occurring and take a stand to bring about bipartisan solutions for the complex problems we face. Our country will be the better for it.

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    June 2020

    2020...Beyond 2020

    2020 in the United States will be a year to remember and, for many, a year to forget. In a matter of four months (March to June), we have experienced the surge in COVID-19 infections resulting in varying stay-at-home polices in each of the states. During the four month timeframe, more than 100,000 Americans died from the virus. The pandemic, coupled with the closing of many businesses, led to a dramatic downturn in the economy and an increase in unemployment not seen since the Great Depression. By early May, pressure was building to reopen the economy, resulting in citizen protests in a number of state capitals. Most states began relaxing stay-at-home policies in May. Then on May 25th, George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis. This event spurred massive protests in numerous cities across the country. There were peaceful protests as well as violence and looting. And there was an emergence of dialog and actions designed to address systemic racism. Some counter-protests are now also emerging. Throughout all of this, the conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic are continuing. 

    For people of the Baby Boom generation, the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020 are reminiscent of the civil rights protests of the 1960’s. There are differences, of course. The dramatic, sudden and combined impact of the pandemic and economic recession is something this nation has never experienced. Meanwhile, the controversial war in Viet Nam was more like slowly sinking in quicksand.

    Clearly, elected leaders in both political parties are struggling with the dynamics in 2020. The November elections are a little more than four months away. To their credit, national leaders have passed three stimulus bills, focusing on the combined impact of the pandemic and the economy. And national legislation is moving rapidly, designed to address systemic racism and excessive force by the police. However, throughout this process, the rhetoric and actions of President Trump have not been unifying...particularly at a time when the pandemic...a nonpartisan threat...looms large. As noted by the Pew Research Center, we are a nation divided at this time https://www.pewresearch.org/topics/political-polarization/. President Trump has earned a red flag by his divisive words and actions.

    The News Media Is Not Helping

    This divisiveness is exacerbated by some of the major players in cable news media. The Poynter Report (a prominent media watch dog) cited the recent news event outside the White House. The following is an excerpt from their June 3, 2020 report.

    Two different audiences - and countries,  perhaps - are wrapped up (with) two chyrons running simultaneously as President Trump stood in front of a church following his brief remarks Monday

    CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”CNN: “Peaceful protestors gassed, shot with rubber bullets so Trump can have church photo-op.”

    Fox News: “President Trump visits historic St. John’s Church in DC amid protests.”

    And later, this from CNN: Trump says he's an "ally of all peaceful protestors" as police fire tear gas and rubber bullets on peaceful protestors near WH"

    Poynter goes on to report that this excerpt is just the initial snapshot of the detailed opinion-based coverage later that evening. They note that rubber bullets were not fired (as reported by CNN). Meanwhile, they point out that Fox News coverage appears to be clueless to the events on hand. Poynter states that it is as if these major media outlets are simultaneously describing two different countries.

    Where Do We Go From Here?

    We are at the mid-point of 2020 and clearly in a chaotic state. The prospects of a rapid turnaround in 2021 are not promising. David Gergen (political commentator and former presidential advisor in the Nixon, Ford, Reagan and Clinton administrations) stated in a 2020 visit to La Crosse, “It is very possible that, regardless of who wins the Presidential election in November, they will have a very difficult time governing for the next four years.” We hope he is wrong in this prediction. But we should not ignore the gravity of the situation.

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    **************************May 2020

    Is Wisconsin Broken Politically?

    Some people are asking. In the case of several recent high-priority, high-profile issues, it seems elected leaders have retreated into their respective political camps rather than attempt to address the collective needs of the state. The April primary election and the Supreme Court ruling on the Safer At Home declaration are two examples. Our nation might never gotten off the ground if our Founders used a similar approach to problem resolution.

    Of course, Wisconsin is not unique to divisive politics. Nationally, the divide between the two major political parties has grown dramatically in the last 15 years. Pew Research has been tracking partisan beliefs for the past twenty-five years. They asked persons who are declared Republicans and Democrats to respond to common core questions. The following charts demonstrate their findings.

     



    In 1994 and 2004, the median beliefs on core issues were actually fairly close, unlike where they are today. In a related study, Pew Research determined that the overwhelming factor in the growing political divide is not race, education-level, religious attendance, age or gender. Rather it is political party loyalty. As an elected official, an ethical leader should work to represent the needs of their entire constituency, not just those who belong to the same political party.

    Unfortunately, the actions in Wisconsin during the pandemic are following this divisive political pattern. The COVID-19 pandemic is caused by a virus that does not determine those infected based upon their political party affiliation. It should be viewed as a common enemy, with a threat to both the health of our population and to our economic well-being. Elected officials should focus on the needs of the people of Wisconsin and commit every effort to address both of these threats, not pick sides.


    As citizens, we should be looking for the elected officials from both parties to stand up to their own party leaders and promote common-sense, collaborative actions to meet the pandemic threat head on. It is our best way through this. And it might open the door to a better, healthier political process in our state. 


    April 2020

    The Power of Trust in Leadership

    One of the goals of LeaderEthics-Wisconsin is to help to prepare the next generation of ethical leaders among elected officials. The purpose of these workshops is to provide information for potential candidates for local elections (e.g. school board or city council) on how to run on an ethical leadership platform. The intent is to prepare elected officials in entry level positions to develop practices and a grassroots network to help them continue on an ethical leadership platform should they decide to seek a higher elected office at some future time. 

    In September 2019, we held the Candidate Development Workshop in La Crosse. We had 12 participants, half were younger (under 35) and five of twelve were women. Teri Lehrke, Clerk in the City of La Crosse, provided information on the “nuts and bolts” of becoming a candidate. LeaderEthics-Wisconsin provided information regarding ethical leadership. Following that, participants had an opportunity to hear from two legislative officials, Steve Doyle (D),  Representative of the 94th Assembly District in Wisconsin; and Lee Nerison (R), Former Representative of the 96th Assembly District of Wisconsin who provided insight regarding their experience (and challenges) in ethical leadership. 

    Both did an exemplary job in their presentation. Clearly, it was the highlight of the workshop. In this particular article, we are going to highlight the presentation of Lee Nerison (I will have an opportunity to highlight Steve Doyle in a future article). Lee Nerison was elected to the Assembly in 2004 and he served in that role until the end of 2018. He established himself as an independent thinker and he was one of only four Republicans who opposed Governor Scott Walker’s Act 10 legislation in 2011. Act 10 was controversial in that it severely limited collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. At the workshop, Lee explained that he sought input from constituents and the majority opposed the changes proposed in Act 10.  He informed his Republican colleagues that he was going to remain steadfast in his position. Ultimately, Act 10 passed and Lee likely lost some influence within his party. Nonetheless, he continued to build his reputation as an advocate for agriculture issues and the district he served.

    Lee went on to share an experience a few years after Act 10. Lee was targeted by the other political party as holding an Assembly District seat that could be won. Significant money from outside the district was funneled into his opponents campaign. Lee explained that he was “outspent” by his opponent by a five to one margin. Despite the campaign finance disparity, Lee Nerison won re-election. Lee’s reputation for integrity out-weighed the pressure from substantial opposition campaign funding.

    When I speak to groups about LeaderEthics-Wisconsin, I am frequently asked, “How can someone be an ethical leader given the existence of political party pressure and the high cost of political campaigns?”. I feel the best answer I can provide is to point to Lee Nerison. He earns a “big green light” for his exemplary service as an ethical leader.


    March 2020

    Can You Detect Media Bias?

    As shared in several issues of The Ethics Report, the trust in government has been eroding. At the same time, the trust in media has also been on a decline.

    An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts poll, released November 20th, found that about two in ten Americans trust that the media’s reporting is based on facts. Only 21% of Americans always or often trust the media and 47% sometimes have that trust and 31% said that they rarely or never believe that media reports based on facts.

    A September 2019 Gallup poll showed that only 41% of Americans have trust in the media. This trust level reverses the recent upward trend from the low point of 2016 when the trust level was 32%. The following chart shows the long-term pattern from Gallup polls. 

    The trend in media trust shows an increasing partisan split over the past twenty years, with Democrats showing more trust in media sources than Republicans. The following chart shows this pattern.

    The Gallup poll showed notable increases in distrust of CNN, The New York Times and The Washington Post among Republicans. Meanwhile,  The Sean Hannity Show and Breitbart News are now distrusted by a larger share of Democrats than in 2014.

    Two Sources We Recommend

    The net result of the increased mistrust in the media leads to the basic question, “who can you trust?”. In answering this question, we should look in two areas, a) the tendencies of bias in the various media sources, and b) the tendencies of accuracy in those media sources. We recommend looking into AllSideshttps://www.allsides.com/unbiased-balanced-news and Media Bias/Fact Checkhttps://mediabiasfactcheck.com/center/

    AllSides maintains a list of nearly 600 media outlets and writers. These outlets and writers are rated and placed into the following categories: Left, Lean Left, Center, Lean Right, Right and Mixed. The ratings are helpful to the media consumer. One can look at their favorite media sources and gain a better understanding of the messaging they are receiving. It also allow the consumer to seek out new media sources in the effort to develop a more balanced perspective. AllSides also does a Left, Center, Right comparison of stories with similar topics. This is helpful in developing a more balanced perspective of controversial issues. AllSides also solicits reader feedback (What Do You Think?) in their ratings. As such, they may adjust ratings over time based upon feedback. Furthermore, the reader feedback is listed next to the AllSides rating.

    Media Bias/Fact Check (MB/FC) also rates various media sources. They are considerably more comprehensive with more than 3000 sources in their data base world-wide. They rate media sources in the following categories: Left, Left-Center, Least-Biased, Right-Center and Right. They also categorize media sources identified as: Pro-Science, Conspiracy-Pseudoscience, Questionable Sources and Satire. MB/FC provides an added service by rating the fact check organizations. Essentially, they fact check the fact checkers. 

    All Media Has Bias

    Both of these websites can serve as an excellent resource for a “quick check” when one comes across an article with a questionable message. They can also help us “check ourselves” in order to gain a better understanding of our habits for media consumption. Both sites recognize that all media has bias. AllSides addresses this through the feedback from readers. MB/FC addresses this through their “Least Biased” rating category. It should also be pointed out that the two sites differ in their ratings for some of the same media sources (e.g. BBC has a Left-Center rating on MB/FC, while maintaining a Center rating on AllSides). Alas, no system is perfect. But we offer a green light for both sites. In fact, we recommend that you bookmark both sites and spend some time browsing the information on them. If you are interested in promoting ethical leadership, it will be time well spent. And it may lead to the rebuilding of trust in media.

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    Ethical leaders are:

    - honest and truthful 

    - transparent with public information 

    - a unifier rather than a divider

    - committed to represent their entire constitu

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    Copyright 2018

    LeaderEthics - Wisconsin is organized as a 501(c)4 non-profit organization.  P.O. Box 371, La Crosse, WI 54602

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