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In Wisconsin, Partisan Battles Rule the Legislature

State legislatures may not be as partisan as Congress, but they're getting closer.



Editors' Note: This article was published January 2010. Governing would like to share this article from our archive to provide context to legislative struggles in Wisconsin.

Robin Vos used to love arguing with Democrats. As a county official in Wisconsin, the self-described "ideological" Republican got together with a Democratic mayor and began a political discussion group open to any and all comers. It was, Vos recalls, "the best experience I ever had." For a couple of years, at least. But then bloggers started attending the meetings and, Vos says, twisted various statements out of context. "They would make us all sound nuts," he says. "Outside partisanship made it impossible for us to get together."

Now Vos participates in a different kind of debating society. As a member of the state Assembly, representing his hometown of Racine, he has a seat on the Joint Budget Committee -- the most powerful panel in the Wisconsin legislature. But that doesn't give him much say over the budget. Democrats, who hold relatively modest majorities of 52-to-46 in the Assembly and 18-to-15 in the Senate, have nevertheless taken three-quarters of the slots on the Budget Committee, making Republicans such as Vos little more than interested observers.

One result was that not a single GOP member of the Assembly voted for the state's biennial budget bill last year. Jeff Fitzgerald, the Republican leader, described the worst budget crisis in Wisconsin history as "the Democrats' problem," appearing to give more weight to his hopes of retaking the chamber in 2010 than to helping solve the state's real problems. But Democrats made it pretty clear they weren't interested in Republican input, anyway. On the budget bill and other important measures, they squash Republican amendments at nearly every turn. It's become a habit for members of the Assembly, in particular, to spend as many hours a day in closed partisan caucuses as they spend on the floor. On the final day of session this past November, Assembly Democrats were in caucus for 10 hours, seeking the last votes their leaders needed to pass an education measure that wasn't going to receive any Republican support.

In such an environment, there's little reason to expect bipartisan cooperation -- or even an open exchange of ideas. "You no longer look at anyone around here as an individual," Vos says. "You look at them as a target. Either you're in a safe seat and I'm never going to touch you, or you're in a marginal seat and I can't ever do anything to help you. It makes legislating very difficult."

Partisanship is worse in Wisconsin than in some other states partly because both chambers remain closely contested. But the factors that drive the parties apart in Madison -- the need for constant fundraising; the influence of interest groups closely allied with one party or the other; and an altered media landscape that gives precedence to partisan hyperbole -- are present to some degree in just about every state capital. Legislatures may not be as partisan as the U.S. Congress -- not every vote at the state level is a potential litmus test -- but they're getting closer. "I blame Washington," says Fred Risser, the Democratic Senate president in Wisconsin and, with 53 years of service, the nation's longest-serving state legislator. "The extreme partisanship in Washington, D.C., has trickled down to the states."

Tim Storey, of the National Conference of State Legislatures, cautions that there can be a lot of false nostalgia involved in looking back upon supposedly halcyon days when "camaraderie transcended politics." It's a useful reminder that legislators have been fighting with each other since legislatures have existed. Still, Storey concedes that things are more bitter now. Thirty years ago, the rhetoric on the floor was plenty hot, but behind closed doors, legislative leaders quietly worked together to cut deals that kept bills moving. "You could always rely on the elected officials from both parties to study the issue and then reach a compromise," Storey says. "But when compromise becomes an evil thing -- a failure and no longer equated in virtue -- that becomes a problem."

Of course, there are rare instances where there's been "enforced bipartisanship," as Jason Mumpower, the Republican leader in the Tennessee House, puts it, because the two parties are tied and essentially have no choice but to put aside their differences. In such cases, the leaders generally take the most contentious issues off the table, knowing there's no chance for success -- and become more productive because they're not distracted by the hotter topics.

But things don't always work out that way, as the New York Senate amply demonstrated last summer. A temporary partisan tie led not to the splitting of differences but complete deadlock, with the two party caucuses refusing even to meet in the same space for a month. And most legislative chambers are not tied, or even close to it. When one side enjoys a clear majority, the minority often feels it has little option but to disrupt the proceedings in any way it can. That happened last year in Connecticut, when minority Republicans wouldn't vote for the flurry of final bills because of anger over an unrelated budget package. Similarly, in California, minority Republicans blocked passage of dozens of bills at session's end -- including many with strong GOP support -- because they were angry about a separate budget issue. Dennis Hollingsworth, the Senate GOP leader, said it was a question of trust, complaining that "the Democratic leadership did not uphold their previous budget agreements." But neither Hollingsworth nor his staff were able to furnish any examples of agreements that had been broken.

In Madison, politics hasn't entirely devolved into trench warfare. There's probably less public hostility between the two sides than there was a few years ago, when a political scandal over use of staff for political purposes led to the conviction of several legislative leaders. And, as in most states, the vast majority of bills pass unanimously or by enormous bipartisan margins. But there's virtually no common ground on the votes that really count. No matter how much lip service is given to bipartisanship as a virtue, the reality in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, is that external and internal pressures have made bipartisan cooperation all but impossible to achieve. "You get the parties together in caucus and it's like a pack of wolves," Risser says. "They follow the leader, right or wrong."

Wisconsin is the birthplace of the Republican Party, and, historically, the GOP has dominated politics in the state. For the first half of the 20th century, Democrats were barely in contention. Partisan contests for legislative seats really didn't become very aggressive until 1974, when Democrats, in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal, claimed majorities in both chambers that were to last two decades. Even as the legislature became competitive, however, Republicans usually held the governorship: Republican Tommy G. Thompson served as governor from 1987 until 2001. "Thompson became more and more effective at accumulating money and managing the legislative agenda as well, and Democrats figured out that they had to try to compete in kind or just give up the prospect of winning elections again," says James Conant, a political scientist who worked in Wisconsin politics on the Democratic side and wrote a book about the state's political system.

By the end of Thompson's 14-year reign, politics in Wisconsin had become much more expensive, and some of the gentlemanly rules of the game had been abandoned. The gloves really came off following the Republican takeover of Congress -- and the Wisconsin legislature -- in 1994, suggests Mark Miller, who chairs the Democratic caucus in the state Senate. "It was no longer enough to defeat your opponent," he says. "You had to crush them. Because of the success Republicans had with that, it prompted a response in kind."

At the same time that the rhetoric emanating from both parties grew hotter, interest groups stepped up their involvement in partisan politics. The largest groups -- the Wisconsin Education Association on the Democratic side and Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce for the GOP -- had always played prominent roles. But in past times, neither sided exclusively with candidates of one party or the other. The education association had a policy of automatically endorsing any legislator who voted with them 80 percent of the time, leading to a lot of teacher support for moderate Republicans. Nowadays, there's a single-minded devotion among interest groups to helping the party that favors their agenda win control, and this extends to single-issue groups whose concern is abortion, gun rights, the environment or any other controversial matter. They go either all "D" or all "R." The days when half a loaf was better than none are over. "They will not tolerate compromise on their issues," Miller says. "They can hold parties hostage."

The roles of political parties and interest groups have grown so blurred in Wisconsin that it's hard in some cases to tell which controls the other. Interest groups help caucus leaders recruit candidates at the earliest pre-primary stages. They run massive independent expenditure campaigns, buying TV time in large quantities to praise or defame candidates, generally without the candidate's knowledge. "All of a sudden, you've got . . . the big money handpicking candidates," says Tim Cullen, who served as Senate majority leader in the 1980s. "They tend not to settle on moderates. Big money collapsed the political center in Wisconsin."

With both chambers closely divided in recent years -- the state Senate has changed hands five times since 1994 -- there has been a tremendous escalation in fundraising. Twenty years ago, a typical state Senate campaign might cost $50,000. Now, million-dollar campaigns are not unusual and the state has seen a $3 million state Senate race. There is public financing available in Wisconsin, but the law was never indexed for inflation and so the amounts provided to candidates under its provisions are far too small to have any practical effect. Virtually no one in a seriously contested election can be competitive using public money.

The help that lobbyists provide to candidates is repaid by close attention when it comes time for governing. There are stories in legislatures all across the country these days about lobbyists sending BlackBerry messages to legislators on the floor, instructing them to vote up or down on amendments and bills. In Madison, you hear complaints that the interest groups set the agenda and the people in leadership figure out how to pass it. "Special interests have literally controlled the agenda from the beginning to the end," complains Robin Vos. "Almost no important legislation has gone to the floor without the blessing of one of the special interests."

Any day the Wisconsin legislature is in session, you can count on finding Jim Smith sitting directly across Main Street from the capitol at Genna's Lounge, a wedge-shaped bar filled with posters for Guinness beer and pictures of the old Sinatra Rat Pack. Smith was the lead political consultant for Assembly Democrats in their successful 2008 effort to win back majority control of the chamber for the first time since 1994 -- giving Democrats total control of the legislative and executive branches of state government. During the campaign year, Smith got in the habit of setting up shop at Genna's because members weren't allowed to conduct political business inside the capitol. "By law, we had to go off-site," Smith says. "I'd meet someone in the capitol for lunch and other legislators would look at me like I wasn't allowed in there." But doing business at Genna's does not make lobbyists or pressure groups the slightest bit less influential.

One can make the case that hyper-partisanship actually was worse in Wisconsin a few years ago than it is now. At one point, junior members and staff were warned against consorting with the enemy and were actually chastised if they were seen sharing meals with counterparts across the aisle. That seems to have abated: Leaders on both sides in both chambers say they get along amicably on a personal basis.

But the partisan political gamesmanship has not abated at all. Legislators who chair party caucuses are, for all intents and purposes, campaign managers. Neophyte members elected under such a system owe a great deal of loyalty to the leaders who helped bring them to power. Some observers complain that legislators who begin their careers by taking orders from the party leadership continue to do that out of sheer habit even in later terms, rather than building their own independent expertise and voting records.

Conversely, members recruited largely for their ideological loyalty also place their own demands on leaders, and often this involves expressing frustration with any tendency to compromise. Both Republicans and Democrats in Wisconsin have, over the past few years, dumped leaders who were seen as too conciliatory. "Caucuses tend to select as their leaders those who have demonstrated the most willingness to take on the competition in a partisan way," says Mark Miller, the Senate Democratic caucus chair.

The result is a kind of continuous feedback loop, with rank-and-file members, leaders and interest groups all demanding fealty to their shared beliefs. "In any session, you can be at 17-to-16 and there's a ton of pressure on one or two members to comply [with the party line]," says Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate Republican leader. "Part of how you do that is ratcheting up the pressure."

Bob Ziegelbauer has felt the pressure. The Democrat from Manitowoc has served in the Wisconsin Assembly nearly 20 years, and when the party returned to power last year, he was able to claim one of the choicest perks that came with majority status. He was handed the gavel as chair of the Ways and Means Committee. That is, until he crossed his own leadership on a big budget vote. Ziegelbauer, who describes himself as "proudly, unabashedly" pro-life, simply wouldn't vote the way leaders wanted on an amendment that involved abortion. He also wasn't crazy about what he calls a "horrible, horrible" budget package that included tax increases he believes will hurt the state for years to come. As a result, Ziegelbauer was stripped of his committee chairmanship. "It was a buildup of consistently not voting with us," says Mark Pocan, the Democrat who co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee. "It was not one issue."

Leaders in states from California to Florida in recent years have stripped apostates of important committee and leadership positions after they strayed on important votes. In Wisconsin, Ziegelbauer's experience was simply the latest warning of the dangers involved in bucking the party when it counts. People in Madison still talk about what happened to George Petak, a Republican who represented a swing district in the state Senate in the 1990s. That is, until he voted in support of a tax increase to help pay for a stadium. It wasn't so much that Petak had defied the GOP's usual tough line against taxes. It was that Democrats sensed an opportunity to knock him out and capture a crucial seat, and so they mounted a recall election effort against him, the first one to succeed against any legislator in state history. "It was an example of cooperating, and then being punished by the other side," Vos says.

All of these complex rivalries are amplified by media outlets that are increasingly partisan themselves. There are two prominent talk-radio hosts in Milwaukee who keep conservatives in line, at least within their listening area. They can always gin up lots of phone calls when a Republican votes "the wrong way." And Madison, like other capitals, has witnessed a decline in mainstream news coverage even as it has acquired a corps of bloggers argumentative enough to satisfy every persuasion. "You have less of a check on what the facts really are," says Mark Pocan, "so it becomes a question of who has better spin."

Al Ott, the longest-serving Republican in the Assembly, points out that things weren't always so great in the old days, either. He recalls a speaker 30 years ago taking to the floor and admonishing his colleagues for supporting a minority amendment to the budget, which, properly chastised, they then promptly scotched. In those days, Ott recalls, one Democratic maverick was stripped of his desk and forced to sit behind two orange crates and a plank.

But Ott, who concedes that his colleagues call him a "RINO" (Republican In Name Only), says things have gotten seriously worse. The public is frustrated by government that has trouble reaching decisions on matters that will have long-term impact. "That's an ability we may not have any more," he says. "To be uncivil in the process apparently is easier than trying to put on the harness and work through the process. It's easier to say, 'We've got the power and we'll roll through it.'" And that is a clear consequence of hyper-partisanship.

There are those who argue that this is inevitable, the result of districts that are more homogeneous and whose voters insist on consistent compatibility with their own views. "Our job here is to reflect the opinion of the people we represent," says state Senator Dale Schultz, one of the few remaining moderate Republicans in the legislature, "and by its nature that can be contentious."

It is tempting to plead with legislators to stop bickering and come up with common-sense solutions to serious problems, but the unpleasant reality may be that there are no obvious common-sense solutions on which a natural consensus exists. When faced with enormous deficits, some legislators will believe it's necessary to raise taxes, while others will argue with equal or greater conviction that this would be the worst possible idea during a period of recession.

There is a genuine battle between such ideas, and perhaps it should not be surprising that the arguments about them tend to break along partisan lines. Jeff Fitzgerald, the Assembly Republican leader, suggests that his locally famous quote that the deficit was "the Democrats' problem" was "kind of an offhand comment," but it's not one that he particularly backs away from. "I do believe the job of the minority leader is to get his caucus back in the majority," he says. "It puts you in position to move the state ahead according to what you think is the best direction, the core beliefs you have."

Not all battles are partisan. Much of the gamesmanship in any capitol comes between the two legislative chambers or the branches of government, even when they all are controlled by the same party. At the moment, the Republican leaders in the two chambers, Jeff and Scott Fitzgerald, are brothers. Asked if he and his older brother get along worse as minority leaders than they did as kids, Jeff Fitzgerald laughs and says, "It's exactly the same . . . . Sometimes the worst fighting is between leaders of the Assembly and Senate, but we know we both have to show up to Sunday dinner at our parents'."

Things are only going to grow more contentious in Wisconsin this year, with the governorship up for grabs and both chambers very much in play. "The environment now is really not that bad," says Scott Fitzgerald. "But it's going to be a tough election cycle. There are many bills, quite honestly, that can be used as ammo in elections back home."


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Alan Greenblatt is a Governing correspondent.

E-mail: agreenblatt@governing.com
Twitter: @governing

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