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Reasons why turnover is high in Legislature

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Steven Walters
May 28, 2012

Wisconsin legislators leave for many reasons.


They seek higher office or get voted out of office. They get new districts and balk at introducing themselves to thousands of new voters. They get better-paying state jobs. They don’t expect their party to be in control next year, so they know their ideas won’t matter. Assembly sessions that last more than two days take tolls on families and part-time careers. They must care for ill family members. They retire.


Whatever the reasons, almost half of the 132 Wisconsin legislators who take office in January won’t have any more than four years of experience in a branch of government that rewards and values long-term institutional knowledge.


A study by WisconsinEye and The Wheeler Report found that:


--Of the 99 Assembly members sworn in during January 2009, 34 were gone two years later.


--Of the 99 Assembly members sworn in as of January 2011, 16 have announced they will not seek re-election.


--Of the 33 senators who began the 2009-10 session, 12 were either gone within two years or no longer will be serving in January.


Those numbers will grow because history says a few incumbents who seek re-election will lose in November.


Two incumbents surprisingly lost in 2010: The longest-serving member of the Assembly, Democrat Marlin Schneider, had his 39-year run ended by Republican Rep. Scott S. Krug. In that same election, Assembly Speaker Mike Sheridan, a Janesville Democrat, lost to Republican Rep. Joe Knilans.


Former Republican Senate Majority Leader Mary Panzer of West Bend said Schneider and Sherman were victims of a “wave” election—waves that can sink Republican and Democratic incumbents, depending on national trends and issues.


In exit interviews, retiring legislators cited personal reasons.


“Someone else can do this (Assembly) job. But no else can raise my kids,” said first-term Republican Rep. Michelle Litjens of Oshkosh. She hopes to run for office when her two children get older.


Democratic Rep. Tamara Grigsby of Milwaukee said she feared running for re-election would slow her recovery from cancer and other health problems that almost killed her late last year.


Another veteran Democrat, Rep. Louis Molepske, said he had neared his goal of serving 10 years in the Assembly and would run for another office—Marathon County district attorney—closer to his Stevens Point home.


In a WisconsinEye interview, Democratic Rep. Tony Staskunas, a respected 16-year member of the Assembly, explained his surprise decision to retire. Staskunas, 51, often presided over the Assembly and is former Democratic caucus chairman.


“In my case, it was such a combination of many, many factors,” Staskunas said. “My district had changed. It did become a more (Republican) district to run in. I think I could have won, but I would have had to work my tail off. After 16 years, I didn’t know how hard I was going to be able to work and keep my law practice going.


“And then I start to measure how difficult that campaign would have been and weigh it against: Am I still enjoying the job? Am I able to be effective in the job? Am I able to work with people and pass legislation like I used to in the past? And then, ultimately, just the working conditions in the Capitol. …


“As I started to put all of those things together, it just—for me, anyway—said that 16 years is a good run, and it’s a good time to step out.”


Staskunas also said having only 39 Assembly Democrats last session meant “we were not relevant—we weren’t in the game at all.”


Panzer and Staskunas also said there was no enforcement of some “unwritten rules” of legislators’ conduct in the 2011-12 session. A former Senate majority leader, Panzer served in the Legislature for 24 years; her father also served in the Senate.


The phrase, “No, you’re going too far” was “never uttered” by either Assembly Democratic or Republican leaders to someone who was acting outrageously last session, Staskunas said.


Former Republican Sen. Pam Galloway of Wausau, a physician, served only 15 months in the Senate before resigning to help care for two critically ill family members. Her March resignation avoided a June 5 recall election.


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

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