As tanks and armored vehicles rumbled through the streets of Washington, D.C., on the Fourth of July, the kids in my neighborhood were pedaling their bikes, festooned with American flags, in a local parade that passed close by the home of our new Democratic governor, Tony Evers. Evers, a former science teacher, recently ousted Republican Scott Walker, the most bitterly divisive governor in the history of our state.
Two different Fourth of July celebrations, two different views of our country.
In the 24/7 Trump news cycle, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, and to overlook what’s happening at the state and local level. But if we are going to exercise our power as citizens to seize control of our future, we need to start by paying attention to what’s going on close to home.
That’s why we launched this site.
The Wisconsin Examiner is part of a network of state capital news bureaus started by Newsroom, a national, nonprofit organization with a vision for supporting high-quality journalism as newspapers struggle and statehouse coverage shrinks.
This is a vital undertaking because, even as fewer reporters cover state government, some of the most critical battles over the shape of our democracy are happening in the states.
Take partisan gerrymandering, which the Supreme Court recently decided is “beyond the reach of the federal courts.” That decision was a blow to the people of Wisconsin, where a majority of Republicans and Democrats alike support the idea of having a nonpartisan commission draw voting districts instead of the state legislature. Wisconsin voters elected Democrats in every statewide race in 2018, but saw the Republicans keep control of the legislature based on one of the most gerrymandered maps in the country. In the state assembly in 2018, Democrats captured 53 percent of the vote, but won only 36 percent of the seats. The legislature’s Republican majority then held a lame-duck session to seize powers from the newly elected Democratic governor and attorney general, and rewrote the “People’s Budget” crafted by the governor based on input from citizens around the state, which would have restored funding for schools and expanded access to health care. Now, those same gerrymandering legislators will have a major role in drawing new voting districts after the 2020 census.
Right-wing interest groups have known for a long time that state and local government are where important decisions get made. For decades, the NRA, the Club for Growth and the pro-voucher American Federation for Children have poured money into local and statewide elections, seizing the levers of policymaking by playing in lower-dollar, low-turnout elections.
Meanwhile, news outlets are cutting back on government reporting and giving us more coverage of sports and Donald Trump’s latest tweets.
That suits the lobbyists just fine. People who stand to profit from an unprotected environment, a disempowered workforce, and a citizenry that has lost its hold on the levers of democracy are only too happy to do their business away from the public’s prying eyes.
Here in Wisconsin, we got a major wakeup call in 2011, when then-Gov. Walker unleashed his “divide and conquer” strategy on the state, demonizing teachers, busting unions, slashing funding for our schools and breaking long-standing rules of open government.
Tens of thousands of citizens converged on our state Capitol building. My daughters marched in the streets with their teachers. I’ll never forget seeing my kids’ gym teacher wriggle through a bathroom window to get into the locked Capitol building as the State Senate voted to end collective bargaining for public employees in the middle of the night.
It was stirring to be in the middle of that massive, spontaneous citizen uprising. And it was fascinating to cover a national news story that was taking place right in my hometown, and which involved my own neighbors, friends, and my kids’ teachers.
For most of my life I’ve covered national politics.
Two years ago, shortly after Trump was elected, I decided to take a break. I stepped away from my job as editor-in-chief of The Progressive magazine and moved with my family to Mexico for a year. It was good to get away from the nonstop Trump-a-thon. I covered the border crisis, the Caravan of Migrants, the massive earthquakes that rocked Mexico and the national elections in which Mexican voters rose up and threw out an entrenched, corrupt regime. And I got a valuable outside perspective on the United States.
When my family and I came home to Madison in the fall of 2018, the national political climate had not improved. Trump’s policies were getting worse, families were being torn apart at the border and the president seemed to be directing the entire national political conversation with his thumb.
But the Blue Wave election in November began to shift the tide. In Wisconsin, which had helped elect Trump, Scott Walker lost to a soft-spoken, sensible former science teacher. The new governor appears to have outwitted his opponents in the legislature with partial vetoes of their budget and a style of governing that moves beyond the hyper-partisanship of recent years and seeks to address basic issues like school funding, health care and repairing the roads. It’s an interesting political model.
When I met the Newsroom folks, I was captivated by their mission.
The 24/7 Trump news cycle isn’t getting us anywhere. It’s time to get down to the roots of our political crisis — to focus on the places where politics touches us in our daily lives.
I am proud to be part of this effort, and proud to be working with three very talented journalists to launch the largest capitol news bureau in Madison and bring you news about what is going on in our state.
We are committed to digging up the truth, upholding Wisconsin’s progressive tradition and having fun while we are doing it.