Matt Pommer: Sessions show two sides of Wisconsin politics

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Matt Pommer
Sunday, July 27, 2014

Summer actions seemed to make Wisconsin politics a tale of two states.

Two conservative state senators seeking the Republican nomination for U.S. Congress in the Sixth District refused to participate in candidate forums conducted by the League of Wisconsin Women Voters.

The pair, Glenn Grothman of West Bend and Joe Leibham of Sheboygan, suggested their announced boycott of the forum was due to the league's participation in a federal court challenge to the GOP-enacted law requiring voters to show photo identification before casting ballots.

A different Wisconsin was reflected in a “civility summit” on the farm of former Republican Gov. Tommy Thompson. Others attending the session were State Sens. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville; Bob Jauch, D-Poplar; and Dale Schultz, R-Richland Center. All three veteran legislators have decided not to seek re-election this year.

Thompson described the event as an afternoon of “beef, beer and bull. We all have a passion, an excitement, for the state we so deeply love, and I always have been a doer. To accomplish great things you have to work together.”

All three veteran senators have served in leadership roles in the Legislature. The idea of the meeting came from Thompson, who was elected four times by Wisconsin voters. The men recalled they had had differences but expressed concern about what one called the “seemingly fractured political environment.”

“The three of us have each been around state government in some capacity for over 30 years,” said Cullen. “We've each had a working and personal relationship with Tommy, and we kind of said, 'Gee, if we could find ways to work together despite being from different parties over the years there's got to be a way to apply that to what's happening today.'”

The three senators said they would speak across the state, encouraging candidates to engage in a more civil debate. They said they also would urge candidates to explain how they have or will practice bipartisanship.

The two senators who chose to ignore the league's debate are among the most conservative members of the now-Republican-controlled state Senate. The next Senate is likely to tip even further to the right politically.

Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, said Republicans could expand their Senate margin in the November election, and he is predicting the Senate will be more conservative in 2015. Gerrymandered boundary lines seem to assure that Republicans will pick up a Senate seat in the Racine area now held by Democrats.

Republicans also are optimistic about widening their majority in the Assembly thanks to the boundary lines redrawn in 2011. The GOP holds more than a 3-to-2 margin in the Assembly despite Democrats getting more votes statewide in Assembly races.

The last Republican presidential candidate to win Wisconsin was Ronald Reagan in 1984. A key Republican strategy across the country has been to limit voting by requiring photo IDs and restricting absentee balloting.

A federal judge has ruled Wisconsin's version of the law is unconstitutional. That ruling is being appealed. The League of Women Voters has long encouraged people to get out and vote. Their role in the lawsuit has soured conservatives.

The boycotted forum would seem a natural place for Grothman and Leibham to make a case for the need to squeeze the voting process. One of the arguments used in the photo ID debate is that it will curb illegal voting—something that carries a three-year prison term.

Forums like those run by the league also would seem a good place to practice the civility promoted by the Thompson farm meeting.

Matt Pommer writes this Wisconsin Newspaper Association weekly state government newsletter. He is dean of the state Capitol correspondents, having covered government action in Madison for 36 years. Readers can contact Pommer at mpommer@sbcglobal.net.

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