Local Democratic lawmakers were optimistic Wednesday that Tony Evers’ election as governor would pave the way for bipartisanship in state government even as Republicans strengthened their grip on the Legislature.
The narrow gubernatorial race wasn’t called by The Associated Press until after 1 a.m. Wednesday, and two-term Gov. Scott Walker didn’t concede until later that afternoon. But the projected blue wave that helped elect Evers wasn’t enough to flip seats in the state Legislature to Democrats.
Still, area Democrats believed a divided state government could actually lead to less gridlock.
“It should lead to the very best kind of government where ideological things are left in the dust and we come to some sort of compromise,” said Rep. Deb Kolste, D-Janesville. “That would be ideal. If anything’s going to be done, there will have to be some sort of compromise.”
This will be the first time since 2006 that one party has controlled both legislative chambers while the governor represented the other party. The GOP advantages in each house back then under Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle were similar to the ones Republicans have now after grabbing a Senate seat and holding serve in the Assembly on Tuesday.
Rep. Don Vruwink, D-Milton, said his past career as a history teacher showed him divided government can often lead to the strongest, most enduring laws because it forces the parties to work together.
Sen. Janis Ringhand, D-Evansville, said she was a little concerned the arrangement could lead to gridlock. But she called herself an “eternal optimist” who believes Evers will work collaboratively with Republicans.
Rep. Amy Loudenbeck, R-Clinton, was also hopeful the two parties could find a consensus on issues such as transportation funding or health care coverage. But she said partisan bills were still likely to get introduced.
The Gazette was unable to reach for comment Rep. Tyler August, R-Lake Geneva, or Sen. Steve Nass, R-La Grange, the other two Republican legislators in the newspaper’s coverage area.
Some of the Democrats’ hopes for bipartisanship arose because Wisconsin governors have long had strong veto powers.
But Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on Wednesday that he was open to reducing those powers, casting doubt on visions of bipartisan bliss. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, also a Republican, said he would consider changes, though it wasn’t clear what changes lawmakers might pursue.
Any changes would come in a lame-duck session prior to Walker leaving office in January.
Loudenbeck had not heard about Vos’ proposal when contacted by The Gazette and declined to comment on the idea.
If veto powers remain intact, Rep. Mark Spreitzer, D-Beloit, said he hoped Republicans would not waste time introducing legislation with little to no chance of getting Evers’ signature. This would allow both parties to focus on finding common ground, he said.
Down the road, redistricting could be an issue on which lawmakers find common ground, though it could also inflame divisiveness. Spreitzer and Kolste both think a nonpartisan body should devise legislative district lines instead of the Legislature.
The next opportunity to redraw districts will come after the 2020 U.S. Census is finished. Evers will still be governor at that time; all 99 members of the Assembly and half of the state’s 33 senators will be up for election in November 2020.
Kolste said gerrymandering was a problem in Wisconsin considering Republicans were able to maintain their majorities despite a nearly even split in the vote for governor. Nonpartisan redistricting would likely balance the Legislature’s makeup to reflect Wisconsin’s status as a purple state.
That prospect could lead to deeper division between the parties, but it could be a long-term outcome of Democrats’ immediate hopes for bipartisanship in the wake of Evers’ win.
“If you have to come to a compromise to get things passed to the governor, I think that would be the best option,” Kolste said. “My concern is I often see it’s not about policy in governing and more about winning and gaining more power. Maybe in a divided Legislature, it will be more about governing and coming to compromise on policy issues. That is my hope.”