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'Nobody Ran on Stripping Power Away': Putting the Wisconsin Vote in Context

"You see how easy it is to have what amounts to minority rule, to defy norms and take power that really isn't yours to take," says an expert on the state's politics.

Robin Vos
Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos
(AP/Steve Apps/Wisconsin State Journal)
Wisconsin has had a long tradition of open and transparent government, a legacy of the original progressive movement of a century ago. For many Democrats -- and at least a few Republicans -- the votes held Wednesday by GOP legislators to strip incoming Democratic Gov. Tony Evers of some of his powers amounted to a betrayal of that tradition.

To put this week's action into perspective, Governing spoke with Dan Kaufman, a New York-based writer who is a native of Wisconsin. Earlier this year, Kaufman published The Fall of Wisconsin, a book that examines the actions of Gov. Scott Walker and other contemporary Republicans in their efforts to undo many of the state's political traditions.

Kaufman, who covered this year's race between Evers and Walker for The New Yorker and wrote an opinion column about the power-stripping effort for The New York Times, was in the Wisconsin Capitol for this week's debate and votes. 

"It was kind of the perfect bookend to the Walker reign," he says. "He began with Act 10," which abolished collective bargaining rights for most public employees in 2011. "That was the most divisive piece of legislation in Wisconsin's history. And it ends with this."

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What was your reaction when you heard Republican legislators were planning this effort to take some authority away from the governor?

I thought it seemed pretty extreme. During this last month, [Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos and [Senate Majority Leader] Scott Fitzgerald both used the word "reasonable." They tried to downplay what the changes were, which was effective toward diminishing the public outrage. There were only vague ideas floating around, but clearly they were working on it right away. It's a dense, 141-page bill, with a lot of changes.

Like most of what has happened in the last eight years, there was no public input, with one limited hearing. The process itself is maybe the biggest outrage for people.

I can remember Walker making the argument that the recall elections of 2012 weren't fair play, that voters who didn't like his agenda thought recalls should be reserved for malfeasance and not policy disputes.

He ran ads on that, and that was an effective message.

Speaker Vos complained after the vote on Wednesday that lawmakers didn't have a fair chance to tell the public about what the bill does. Yet the bill wasn't introduced until Friday and was pushed through Wednesday after all-night negotiations.

They had all month to explain it if they wanted to. They tried to explain it but in ways that are not credible. Remember, they're the ones that gave Walker more power originally. 

Vos' argument was that legislators are the closest to the governed. But Wisconsin's legislature, particularly the Assembly, is the most gerrymandered in the country. 

Arguably, given that the gerrymandering is so extreme, the statewide elections are more representative. Assembly Democrats have never gotten more than 39 votes with this map. 

[Last month, Democratic Assembly candidates took 200,000 more votes than Republicans, but Republicans came away with a 64-35 majority. A federal court found that the Assembly map was an unconstitutional partisan gerrymander, but in June, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to decide the case, on the grounds that the plaintiffs lacked standing to bring it.]

Both Fitzgerald and Vos said this week that Evers was too liberal to govern the state. Yet he ran on a liberal agenda and won.

That's why this is an outrage. It's an outrage to some Republicans.

This is the part that's really undemocratic. Tony Evers campaigned on certain things. He ran on the position of defending the Affordable Care Act. That was a central part of his campaign. Nobody ran on their side on stripping power away from the incoming governor, whoever it may be. 

Vos said at his press conference Tuesday that they planned to do this in the spring and they were sorry they didn't get around to it. Does anybody believe that?

Republicans have held the legislature and Walker's been governor since 2010. How do these votes fit within the context of how they've governed?

It's part and parcel with all of their major actions, which have been efforts to tilt the balance in their favor.

Everything that they've done is about engineering their dominance through gaming the political system. Act 10, which bankrupted the unions. Gutting the campaign finance system. Abolishing the Government Accountability Board.

After the Senate vote, Fitzgerald released a statement that concluded, "Citizens from every corner of Wisconsin deserve a strong legislative branch that stands on equal footing with an incoming administration that is based almost solely in Madison." Just after the election, Vos said, "If you took Madison and Milwaukee out of the state election formula, we would have a clear majority."

Those are Democratic strongholds, but what do you make of the top legislative leaders seeming to downplay the importance of the state's major population centers?

It's a continuation of divide-and-conquer politics. Madison and Milwaukee are part of the state. Dane County [which includes Madison] is the biggest job engine, and it's almost the only part of the state that's growing in population and with the economy. 

We don't vote on pockets of land. It's a person that's voting. I heard one representative say -- I have to paraphrase, but he said that his election matters just as much as Tony Evers'. First of all, he's one state Assembly person vs. the governor, who reflects the will of a lot more people. Second of all, he's gerrymandered. His seat was carved out to ensure that a member of his party was elected.

Some political scientists have been commenting that the action in Wisconsin, along with other post-election power-stripping moves in Michigan and North Carolina, represent real threats to democracy, that they undermine the whole idea of the peaceful transfer of power. Seth Masket, who teaches at the University of Denver, tweeted, "Wisconsin has been one of the best functioning democracies in the US for at least a century. What’s going on in Wisconsin today shouldn’t be dismissed as just one state’s experience. If democracy can die there, it can die anywhere."

Are such concerns overblown?

No. I think it's very scary. It's possible to transform a political system, even one that's relatively robust like Wisconsin's was.

Look at my book. I wrote a whole book about it. Looking back, the state was very innovative in opening up the process of government. It was very innovative not just on labor rights but a kind of transparency that was part of that lower case democratic system. There was an unusual amount of citizen involvement in state government.

There's a lot of interest with what's happening with Trump, but when you look at what's happening in states and particularly Wisconsin, you see how easy it is to have what amounts to minority rule, to defy norms and take power that really isn't yours to take.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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