Wisconsinites need to tune into state politics

If more people paid attention to what's happening in the legislature, things would change

Official portraits of Robin Vos and Scott Fitzgerald
Speaker Robin Vos & Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald

Walking through the coffee shop downstairs from the Examiner office this week, I bumped into a neighbor who is smart, well-read and pays attention to national politics.

I was just coming from the Capitol, less than a block away, where the Republican majority in the Senate was getting ready to take a dramatic vote to oust Gov. Tony Evers’ popular agriculture secretary, followed by a vote to approve a constitutional amendment to curtail the governor’s veto powers. My neighbor didn’t know that any of that was going on.

He’s not alone. 

The latest Marquette Law School poll showed that half of Wisconsinites have not even heard of Assembly Speaker Robin Vos and Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald.

The machinations in the Capitol barely register with voters, even as a big political drama is playing out between Democratic Gov. Evers and the Republican legislative leaders determined to cut back his powers. 

The fact that so few people are tuning in emboldens politicians to continue to act in a way that flies in the face of public opinion.

On Thursday, the legislature gaveled in and gaveled out of a special session on guns, with no discussion, refusing to even talk about anti-gun-violence measures the governor had called them there to discuss — measures that are overwhelming popular with Wisconsinites of every political stripe, according to the Marquette poll.

Health care, as Erik Gunn reports this week, was the top issue in the last state election, yet bills on health care coverage and prescription drug costs languish with no action.

Education, Evers’ signature issue, has suffered a similar fate. “It’s just enormously frustrating,” says Wisconsin Public Education Network’s Heather DuBois Bourenane. 

Evers’ original education budget was based on the recommendations of a bipartisan blue ribbon commission on public school funding. The legislature stripped those provisions out. In the final budget, even after Evers deployed some strategic vetoes to get funding back up (leading to the constitutional amendment drive to curtail his powers) 40% of school districts got less state aid than they received last year.

Public school advocates allowed themselves to feel optimistic when legislators brought up a series of stand-alone bills on education that revived measures that had been stripped out of the budget. But most of those measures appear set to die in committee.

One education bill that did get a committee hearing in the Assembly this week would make cursive writing instruction mandatory.

“Of all the places to plant your flag!” says DuBoise Bourenane.

The Wisconsin Association of School Boards opposes the cursive-writing bill, calling it an “unfunded mandate” and an intrusion into curricular decisions that ought to be made at the school board level. But mostly, it’s a silly distraction next to the core issues Wisconsinites want to discuss. 

How long can legislators can keep ignoring the issues voters care about most? 

There are some signs of change in Wisconsin’s political landscape.

Rep. Robyn Vining (D-Wauwatosa) said she believes her seat flipped from Republican to Democratic in 2018, because of her campaign’s focus on the things voters care about, including “quality, affordable health care, strong public education and gun violence.”

Voters want political leaders “who will fight for them on those issues. But they are sick of division . . . they don’t care about punditry in D.C., or frankly, in Madison,” she told reporters during a press call.

Vining says she sees believes voters want change, and that the state will go blue as a result in 2020. 

In the press call she was joined by Democratic Party Chair Ben Wikler and State Sen. Patty Schachtner (D-Somerset), who described a Democratic door-knocking campaign last weekend, one year out from the presidential election. Grassroots activists knocked more than 54,000 doors in suburban and rural areas, Wikler said, targeting “infrequent, independent and disgruntled Republican voters.”

What they found, Wikler said, was that “Republicans are facing significant headwinds in the suburbs.”

Republican predictions that impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump would provoke a backlash that would help them didn’t materialize in recent blue-wave elections in Virginia and Pennsylvania, he pointed out.

But that doesn’t mean voters are focused on impeaching Trump. Instead, Vining and Schachtner said, they want politicians to pay attention to the things that affect them in their own lives.

“People are well aware that President Trump has broken his promises on health care and that he’s done a 180 on passing meaningful common sense gun safety reform,” Vining said.

What’s not clear is whether that awareness is reaching down to the state level, where what’s happening in the Capitol right now will touch people closest to home.

“People are paying very close attention,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-West Point) warned his Republican colleagues during the floor debate on the constitutional amendment to roll back Evers’ veto powers.

But apparently, not enough of them are showing it to make legislators stand up and listen.

Ruth Conniff
Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. She moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump. Conniff is a frequent guest on All in with Chris Hayes on MSNBC and has appeared on Good Morning America, Democracy Now!, Wisconsin Public Radio, and other radio and television programs. In 2011, she did award-winning coverage of the uprising against Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. She has also written for The Nation, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Los Angeles Times, among other publications. Conniff graduated from Yale University in 1990, where she ran track and edited the campus magazine The New Journal.