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Elkhorn’s Kedzie is key to wetlands, mining bills

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Steven Walters
January 30, 2012
EDITOR'S NOTE: The Gazette today introduces columnist Steven Walters of Cottage Grove. Walters has been a senior producer for WisconsinEye since 2009. He covered Wisconsin’s Capitol for the Milwaukee Sentinel and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel between 1988 and 2009. He also teaches a UW-Madison journalism class. After covering the Iowa Legislature in the 1970s, he was managing editor of the Waukesha Freeman. His column on state issues will appear regularly on Mondays.

Forget “Republican” and “Democrat” labels. This year, there are three categories of state senators:


Seven have survived recall elections. Four are the subjects of pending recalls. And, of the remaining senators, many of them wake up at night asking, “Could I be the next recall target?”


Republican Sen. Neal Kedzie of Elkhorn is in the last—the “unrecalled”—category.


But Kedzie, a senator since 2003 and a lawmaker since 1997, says he has never had a recall nightmare.


“If you live with that kind of fear, then you’re being timid,” Kedzie said last week. “Part of being a leader is making tough decisions, taking on tough issues, taking tough votes. Then, you let the chips fall.”


Still, Kedzie is in the middle of two of the biggest Capitol fights looming in the final weeks of this session—new wetlands development rules and rewriting mining regulations to allow development of the giant Gogebic iron mine in Ashland and Iron counties.


Kedzie, 56, is no stranger to being in the middle of big Capitol deals.


He helped write groundwater laws and the first wetland-development standards more than 10 years ago. He helped restart stalled talks over Wisconsin’s entry into the Great Lakes Water Resources Compact, which involved all states and Canadian provinces that border those lakes. He was a player in the years-long controversy over lakefront piers. He was even part of the debate over how to stop bullying in public schools.


In a Capitol where recall elections seem imminent for six top Republicans—the governor, lieutenant governor and four of Kedzie’s fellow GOP senators—Kedzie’s Capitol stock remains high.


That’s because of “his thoughtfulness and respect for the institution,” said Democratic Sen. Bob Jauch. “Neal’s objective is to truly create a consensus. He’s a good listener; he’s willing to take principled stands, and he believes in open deliberations.”


Jauch said he pushed for Kedzie to chair the Senate Committee on Mining Jobs. Because the Gogebic mine would be in Jauch’s northwest Wisconsin district, Jauch is a key member of that Kedzie-led committee.


Still, in this season of recalls, the wetlands and mining bills could be no-win issues. Environmentalists and Democrats criticize both proposals, calling them sellouts to developers and corporations. But Kedzie’s fellow Republicans say failing to pass the mining bill would kill hundreds—and maybe thousands—of new jobs badly needed in some of the poorest regions of Wisconsin.


Kedzie conceded that his style is different than that of some other Republican leaders—tactics that Jauch denounces as raw “dog eat dog” and “law of the jungle” politics.


“I’ve never burned my bridges,” explained Kedzie, who said he never thought volunteering for the Town of La Grange Fire Department decades ago would lead to his state Senate seat.


“To me, it doesn’t pay to expand all of your political capital—on anything,” he said, adding: “You need to leave something in reserve, and that means you don’t tear down the other side, and you don’t tear down the opposition—even if you may be totally opposed. You’re going to have another day, another issue.


“Who might be your enemy today might be ally in the future. … You always have to remember: Everything goes full circle around here, and that’s why I try to put politics on the side.”


Kedzie said it’s tragic that Wisconsin’s political climate is so unforgiving.


“Now, anyone and everyone threatens ‘recall.’ …It’s not healthy for the system. … It may take a couple years before the dust eventually settles here.”


The Capitol climate is so toxic that some legislators won’t even be seen with a lawmaker from the other party outside the building, he added.


They fear, if that happened, “The impression among their constituents is, ‘You’re either a traitor’ or ‘You’re not true to yourself,’” Kedzie added. “It’s come to that.”


Sometimes, Kedzie reminds himself that he’s No. 992 on the official roster—stenciled on a wall outside the Senate gallery—of every senator since Wisconsin became a state in 1848.


“Such a finite number of people have had the opportunity to do what myself and my colleagues do,” Kedzie said. “That’s an immense responsibility.”


Steven Walters is a senior producer for the nonprofit public affairs channel WisconsinEye. This column reflects his personal perspective. Email stevenscwalters@gmail.com.

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