Walters: Rep. Barca is latest shown Democrats’ leadership door

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Steven Walters
Tuesday, September 26, 2017

It just seems that Democratic legislators dump their leaders every 10 years. It’s not a law or the result of a full moon. It’s usually happens after a leader casts a vote that upsets their peers.

In October 2007, Senate Democrats passed the 2007-09 budget and then immediately called a closed-door meeting.

When that caucus ended, Senate Majority Leader Judy Robson was ousted by Russ Decker, who argued that Robson had agreed to a budget that betrayed Democratic principles. Decker was dumped as majority leader in December 2010, minutes after he voted against union contracts negotiated by outgoing Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle and weeks after Decker lost his re-election campaign.

Fast forward to 2017. On Aug. 17, Assembly Democratic Leader Peter Barca of Kenosha was one of three Democrats to vote for up to $2.85 billion in tax breaks for Foxconn, if it invests $10 billion, and hires 13,000 workers, in a new manufacturing plant in southeast Wisconsin.

On Sept. 7, the 35 Assembly Democrats—one-third fewer than the 52 who controlled the Assembly in the 2009-10 session—thanked Barca for his seven years of leadership and replaced him with Rep. Gordon Hintz of Oshkosh.

Barca’s Foxconn vote, and the failure of Assembly Democrats to make election-year gains, played a role in Barca’s ouster. Last week, Barca told a reporter that casting a vote that could help the neighbors who elected you is more important than following the party line on an issue.

The votes to replace Robson and Barca came in the middle of two-year sessions, instead of the tradition of allowing leaders elected after November elections to hold those jobs for the next two years.

A review of caucus leaders over the last 20 years shows that it’s Democrats who call quick closed meetings, offer their leaders the equivalent of a blindfold and last cigarette and end their leadership careers.

Once Republicans pick their leaders, they don’t change them until after the next elections.

The review also showed that the average caucus leader has that role for less than four years. So, by that standard, Barca’s time was up.

In a WisconsinEye interview last week, Hintz said Barca kept the caucus together during a “demoralizing” seven years, which included passage of a Republican redistricting plan whose legality will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, new campaign-finance rules written by Republicans to most help Republicans, and a “national wave” by voters to reject Democrats in 2014 and 2016 election cycles.

There were also “a lot of new members” in the Assembly Democratic caucus who felt they “weren’t necessarily as invested” as they needed to be, Hintz added. The push to oust Barca was led by the 14 Democrats under age 45. Hintz is 43; Barca, 62.

Keeping a Senate Democratic leadership job is like winning a season of Survivor. Senate Democrats have had six leaders in 10 years.

Contrast that with the steady leadership hand of Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, chief of the Senate Republican tribe for an amazing 10 years.

Fitzgerald has lasted as Senate Republican leader because he doesn’t overpromise and get ahead of his members. When Fitzgerald bluntly says, “I don’t have the votes” to pass something—including the 2017-19 budget—that’s true. But then he quietly does whatever it takes to stitch the 17-vote quilt needed to pass that same bill.

To get GOP votes for the state budget, for example, Fitzgerald had three conservative members cut veto deals directly—over the phone from Japan—with Gov. Scott Walker.

That process angered Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, who said final details of the budget should not be dictated by “terrorists,” even if they are his fellow Republicans. In his fifth year leading Assembly Republicans, Vos is on track to break the eight-year record as speaker of Democrat Tom Loftus.

Vos’s leadership style differs sharply from Fitzgerald’s, partly because Vos has a 64-member majority, which means 14 of his members can defect on a bill, and it still passes the Assembly. Fitzgerald leads a 20-member Senate majority, so three balking GOP senators can block a vote.

Vos adjourned the Assembly in Barca’s honor last week, saying “a man of his word, a man of integrity” will be inscribed on the Democrat’s political tombstone.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. Contact him at stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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