In The News
Do voters know 9 legislative contests in Milwaukee end Aug. 14?
By Dominique Paul Noth
Editor, Labor Press
Posted July 16
For much of Milwaukee, the legislative election is over Tuesday, August 14. Only the residents don't realize it.
In eight contested Assembly districts and one contested Senate district for the Madison legislature, it's only Democrats against Democrats - and winner takes all Aug. 14. The midsummer timing of the primary will sharply cut turnout unless people stir - will you give up vacation plans to vote? Sports tickets? TV shows? There are forces counting on you not caring -- or not even knowing.
Redistricting games have turned familiar polling locations into shuffleboard. Whose district are you in? Bet many citizens don't know. (The Government Accountability Board says polling locations are being added by local clerks as soon as known at vpa.wi.gov, which means something of a scramble by Aug. 14 given boundary changes in the city and statewide.)
Distinctive ideological differences? Even those don't wait until November when the top Democrat and top Republican face off in other races. There are ideological differences among candidates bearing the same party label, quite noticeable this August.
That means a lot of citizens will wake up August 15 dismayed that they lost a chance to create more aggressive representation, or failed to keep the good fighters from equally strong-minded company -- especially in a year when people finally noticed that who they elect to the Madison legislature makes a profound difference in their daily lives.
Credit Scott Walker and his minions for being the best recruiting tool the opposition ever had. The GOP heavy hand - heavy to even people in its own party -- broke the historic pattern of just letting the state legislature putter along. Social Darwinism stepped hard on natural evolution.
People who never understood the control that Madison had over tax aid formulas, wage standards, local schools were startled into awareness by the partisan overreach, the emergence of ALEC model national tampering on gun, voter and education standards -- shenanigans that on analysis may not be saving money but costing more down the road. The jury is not only out on that, it hasn't even got the evidence to deliberate.
If the state is waking up to what Madison can do, it still has sand in the eyes -- blind to how an August primary could shut off their voice before they even cast a ballot. The techniques of partisan districting combined with the excuse of fulfilling federal military absentee ballot obligations have imposed a new calendar game. That moved the supposed "fall primary" to Tuesday, August 14, nearly three months ahead of the November 6 general election.
The main statewide primary is on the GOP side, where four candidates out-extreme each other in a blatant misread of Tea Party fervor to face lone Democrat Tammy Baldwin for the US Senate seat being vacated by Herb Kohl. But while this contest will draw media heat, it barely affects the majority of voting citizens.
I mean, who cares if it is really the old goat, the much defeated goat, the Walker sycophant or the D.C. hedge fund hog facing off against Baldwin?
The redistricting extremities forced a federal court panel to step in and redraw near South Side Assembly District 8 where the GOP tried to pretend the growing Latino citizenry didn't have a majority.
But while there are still unfolding federal challenges to the statewide maps, the GOP radical tweaking couldn't convert most of Milwaukee from a strong Democratic makeup. Pausing to punish some of their toughest opponents, the Republicans mainly made several districts even more Democratic to further protect nearby Republicans through reducing internal diversity.
By deliberately making secure Democratic districts more Democratic, by strengthening the existing partisan pattern rather than expanding diversity, the GOP could still run afoul of federal laws, but it sure encouraged more hopefuls with no public service track record to stick a D after their name on the ballot and clog up the election process.
The GOP sought to more deeply protect Alberta Darling from future inroads (note this Republican is unopposed in Senate District 8) by eliminating Sandy Pasch's northeast Milwaukee and North Shore Assembly base. It moved her entire District 22 way over into Waukesha County and other distant Republican domains. So it not only carved out the Whitefish Bay home where Pasch had raised a family while establishing a nursing career, it was clearly intended to force her to quit politics. That has failed miserably, since redistricting put many of her voters in a nearby district where they clamored for her to run.
In Racine they also did it to outspoken Cory Mason (now running unopposed in a neighboring district). In Milwaukee they did it to Josh Zepnick and Fred Kessler, who both intend by November to be back in their original districts and to win again.
Traditional political complacency among Democrats is now being criticized by church groups, seniors, community activists and unions. Progressives, moderates and segments of organized labor are telling the central Democratic Party machine to stop playing the fool, change its ways and start looking beyond the money issue and the traditional primary fence-sitting. Step in when it matters - that's the new message. Get primary active now when good Democrats are running against DINOs (Democrats In Name Only, to borrow an acronym device and scorn from the GOP invective against RINOs, those demeaned as Republicans In Name Only who used to be the effective centrists that citizens could actually talk to).
The Democrats are traditionally the "big tent party," open to all shades of blue from dogs to peaceniks. So the party had a habit of sitting out primary contests among Democrats rather than step into the hue's hue game.
It still makes sense to do so around the state, noted Mark Miller, the party's leader in the state Senate. Speaking powerfully for Democratic and underestimated newcomer Tanya Lohr, who will take on the GOP’s Glenn Grothman in November, he explained to me that his duty was to defend Democratic incumbents and not weigh in prematurely on which of two Democrats he supports to take on the Republican in the crucial Senate District 12 (Tomahawk area), where veteran Jim Holperin is retiring.
That race along with heavily funded attacks on the Oshkosh area's Jessica King, who defeated GOP Randy Hopper in a recent District 18 recall, are the keys to GOP efforts to regain control of the state Senate now that John Lehman (District 21) has been declared the Racine winner.
But where will party leaders be in those primary races where a winner truly determines future responsibility in Milwaukee? Again and again at community events, political fund-raisers and union strategy sessions, one big argument is a reminder of the consequences of cowardice.
The case most mentioned is Chris Larson, then a mere county supervisor who decided to buck an established longtime Democratic incumbent in District 7 though 2010 was a horrible year for Democrats. He had behind- the-scenes support from some Democratic stalwarts such as Fred Kessler, but he also had fists shaken at him and fingers wagged in public by other Democratic Party leaders for standing up to "one of ours," though by his votes and policies Jeff Plale was regularly siding with the Republicans and the voters had come to know it.
Had Larson not stood up to the pressure and won resoundingly, many speakers point out, the famous Illinois flight of the Wisconsin 14 -- to give the public time to understand what Scott Walker was up to in attacking school funding and collective bargaining - well, it would never have happened.
It required all the Democrats to block the fiscal quorum and Plale, who has now been hired by the Walker administration, would never have left. Such is the reward of boldness. Such is the price of wishy-washiness.
"We will no longer support someone because they are occasionally a right vote for our issues,' thundered Wisconsin Progress executive director Scott Spector at a June 27 fund-raiser at The Hamilton.
"We don't care if there is a D or an R and I after you name - what kind of a leader are you? What kind of heart do you have for our issues of schools, families, and children?"
Joining him in speeches at the event attended by a dozen August candidates were Larson, Representatives JoCasta Zamarippa and Sandy Pasch. The group used to be known as Progressive Majority, but now it is admittedly more focused on becoming a majority rather than saying it already is in terms of holding office.
But they are not staying out of primaries and are forcefully confronting the established Democratic Party machinery to step up - behind the scenes if not in public - and their demands are having an effect.
"Normally, we Democrats stay away from primaries," noted Zamarippa in her June 27 remarks, looking pointedly as many speakers did at one guest at the event, state Democratic Party leader Michael Tate. "We can't anymore."
Tate didn't flinch, but he did not publicly respond either. But leaders of the state AFL-CIO and other groups nodded in agreement with the remarks and, as their endorsements indicate, are indeed getting into the primary races and in some cases openly opposing established Democratic incumbents who previously had known knee-jerk backing.
The GOP legislature -- and its legal team paid a half million by taxpayers -- also tried to turn swing districts more Republican, but since both camps have moderates, they actually may have opened the doors in November to popular "of the people" candidates who may or may not be GOP.
A remarkable side-effect of 2010 around the state is how many regular citizens who never were consumed by politics before are stepping out in their own communities to run for legislature as forward-looking Democrats or independents, including school teacher, nurses, fire fighters, business owners and others angry at the direction of the current state majority.
Lohr is one example, building a profound regional dislike for Grothman into a larger look at how his attitudes and policies were injuring communities.
Though many of these contests won't gain full weight until closer to November, look for activity in districts once deemed "GOP safe." Don't be surprised if these actually turn into hot races, particularly in the Milwaukee-Waukesha-Racine drifts.
Some incumbents are relying on a "make no waves" voting record while some grassroots opponents are talking seriously at the doors that it is past time to start making waves. "Once we sat in the back of the bus without fighting -- but no more," said one candidate who curiously has a middle of the road reputation.
Something else remarkable is occurring that could play out mightily in many local races, where incumbent or well-know Democrats are relying on their voting record, well-known family name or polished manner to survive, but are being challenged about who is secretly behind their campaigning (local citizens or out of state rich?), the moral commitment behind their votes, their coziness with conservative money, their slavery to the voucher school networks and even their tendency to play racial politics - all now issues of active discussion in the community and radiating out to voters.
"The fat lady now sings in August," said one wag at a union strategy session, noting dozens of unions that moved up their endorsement and interview process to late July.
Several are opposing incumbents who once had union support. The big concern of all these groups is whether they can make enough noise for voters to hear by Aug. 14.