Wisconsin Republicans cementing their reversal of election results
Protesters rally outside the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on December 3, 2018. | John Hart / Wisconsin State Journal via AP

A century ago, Wisconsin was famous for progressive thought. Now the state makes national headlines for its horror stories – Making a Murderer, Slender Man stabbings, Ed Gein, Jeffrey Dahmer, the state GOP.  The last spent painful hours Dec. 4 and 5 joining the horror parade by refusing to accept the results of the Nov. 6 election.

The Senate Republicans were determined to cripple the new Democratic governor and attorney general on issues campaigned on and won. But as the long lame-duck session dragged past 6 a.m. Wednesday with constant revision and amendments, the GOP was exposed as a clumsy monster.

Minority Democrats couldn’t stop the juggernaut or force open rebellion but after suffering two 18-15 losses they did create a one vote margin thanks to the defection of Sen. Robert Cowles (R-Green Bay) on the third main bill. Their pointed peppered questions and probing analysis revealed embarrassing holes in all the bills that forced the Republicans into private caucuses and rewrites all night, changing financial floors and adjusting limits on early voting.

By Wednesday morning, the tweaked package of bills was being moved to the Assembly, where the GOP had an even stronger and more obedient majority. But what a torturous, lingering special session! It unfolded piece by piece like stakes through the heart of the normal American respect for the transfer of power.

Not surprisingly, none of the bills were needed. But all limit the authority of the incoming Democrats who swept the statewide offices.  The bills add bureaucracy and quarterly reports requiring the approval of GOP legislators before state agencies can act. The Republicans demand they and not the governor control some 20 issues they had allowed control by the defeated governor of their own party, Scott Walker, who, himself eight years ago, had demanded the previous governor accede to him – and that the Democratic governor had agreed upon.

While Walker pretended he would leave his successor, Tony Evers, alone, he has been working behind the curtain – like the con man in “The Wizard of Oz” — to assure the GOP he will sign their self-protective bills before he leaves Jan. 7. The zombie governor added other hindrances on his way out the door – 80 rush appointments and two University of Wisconsin system regents he could have left to education expert Evers.

The package of bills – formulated Friday (Nov. 30) and vaguely outlined in one crowded 10-hour hearing Monday – was approved with some adjustments despite thousands of Wisconsin residents filling hallways and phone boards with thoughtful pleading remarks about the illegality of all of this. It then went to the departing governor to become law as Democrats decried the obvious ugly sour grapes that once seemed outside the boundaries of partisan machinations.

But similar manipulations are taking place in Michigan, which also has a new Democratic governor and a bruised Republican legislature. This refusal to heed the will of the voters should be considered the new GOP normal.

Evers and Attorney General-elect Josh Kaul campaigned on withdrawing Wisconsin from the GOP lawsuit in Texas attacking the ACA over its coverage of pre-existing conditions.  Yet this package of new laws prevents Evers from doing that.

Similarly prevented is the campaign likelihood he would drop Walker’s work requirement for Medicaid eligibility under BadgerCare.  In fact, any financial change to Medicaid (above $7.5 million, tweaked from a $1 million floor) must first be approved by the legislature’s Joint Finance Committee (JFC). This, noted one Democratic legislator, is 4th grade stuff, making the governor raise his hand if he wants to go to the bathroom.

Evers also pledged to eliminate the GOP’s scandal-plagued Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation and restore an active state Commerce Department. The new bills revoke the governor’s power over the WEDC in favor of the legislature through September, a key construction period for Foxconn. Thus will continue the WEDC’s questionable decisions that have sent millions to corporations that didn’t produce jobs and approved a hasty back-of-the-envelope plan that now gives $4.5 billion in state aid to Foxconn, discussed in previous Peoples World stories. The legislature’s wholesale lifting of environmental and water regulations for Foxconn is now in court.

Again and again, the legislature inserts itself between Evers and Kaul, the normal Wisconsin way of working.  It also cripples Evers and his agencies with paperwork.

“Their theory is probably this: The busier we (Democrats) are having to fight to just function, the less time we will have in moving any kind of agenda forward,” said an exasperated Democratic Sen. Chris Larson in an interview. “I’m sure they think this means what is in place now will carry forward farther into the future than it otherwise would. Instead, it will lead to our state tripping over itself to function. “

Though the original language was modified, Kaul is still restricted without legislature approval – or “consultation,” which could be simply telling him a special counsel has been hired – on who represents the state in court on a challenged law. This comes at a time when a number of GOP “laws” are facing challenges on their constitutionality.  That’s something Kaul clearly campaigned on cleaning up.

The bills also eliminate Kaul’s say-so on how settlement money is used, which in the past included a famous tobacco industry windfall (led in Wisconsin in 1998 by a Democratic AG and frittered away by a  Republican governor) and more recently saw Democratic AGs in unison  taking aim at other corporate misbehavior.

The GOP actually toyed with spending $7 million extra to separate a state supreme court race for a conservative incumbent from the spring presidential primary in 2020. That would have been part of this package were it not for the howls from election clerks.

Two Republicans did help stop a schizoid side bill that tried to implement Walker’s pledge to protect pre-existing conditions while the legislature was simultaneously tying Evers’ hands on that Texas bill attacking the ACA.

The Republicans can behave like this, despite robust court challenges now being drawn up, because of the gerrymandered district maps they drew in secret with teams of outside lawyers in 2011. That gerrymander packed Democrats together and wiggled Republican conclaves in dips and curves to protect power in perpetuity (or until Republican-friendly neighborhoods grow into a different viewpoint).

One of the notorious squiggles involves state Senate District 8, which slices together the GOP parts of four Milwaukee area counties to protect Alberta Darling, the co-chair of the JFC who pretended to listen to hundreds of complaining citizens all afternoon and into the night of December 3 as her committee gained dictatorial powers.

The public had voted overwhelming for change if you inspect the numbers or review their moving testimony. Their wishes have been locked out again.

The gerrymandering could be challenged for the 2020 election if a sympathetic federal appeals court moves it in April to a skeptical and conservative US Supreme Court, which may not yet be as deep in the pocket of the GOP as the state’s own high court.  But with Trump in the White House, the state Republicans are confident. Wisconsin only has a statewide presidential election in 2020 and the gerrymander seems likely to hold under that, no matter what the public wants.

Evers, Kaul and a Democratic-leaning state will be climbing a rocky road to get anything done in this continuing horror show. All the Democratic leaders appear frustrated and frankly confused on how to proceed.

Kaul told a national TV audience Dec. 4 that the changes are “sweeping and undermining democracy,” but he has to examine the final verbiage to figure out how to attack this “blatant power grab.”  Evers calls this is an attempted “repudiation of the last election.”  After trying to talk sense to the GOP, he is now weighing every option.

The Madison minority leaders are uncertain what lies ahead. If they could have proved this was a fiscal bill, the situation allowed the flight to another state by the Senate Democrats to avoid a quorum – something that succeeded for weeks back in 2011. But the party’s leaders had no interest in that this time around.

“We’d rather work within the system,” one said, reflecting the belief in basic democratic norms that the Republicans seem willing to abandon for the sake of winning when they lose. It’s difficult to argue against such basic decency, but the GOP has stirred up rebellious thoughts among the voters.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, milwaukeelabor.org. He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.