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Democrats have seized control of Wisconsin state government. Now what?

Credit:Eric Tadsen

Like their counterparts in Washington, D.C., Wisconsin Democrats are beginning 2009 with a powerful case of Be Careful What You Wish For.

The good news: With the new Legislature's inauguration earlier this week, state Dems now control both the Legislature and the executive branch for the first time in more than two decades. The bad news: They face the worst political and economic conditions in modern memory.

After capturing the governor's mansion in 2002 and the state Senate two years ago, the Democrats managed to reclaim the Assembly last fall. They now have an 18-15 majority in the Senate and a 52-46 edge in the Assembly, with one independent.

That alone fulfills a dream for state Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Madison), the new Assembly co-chair of the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee. Pocan was elected in 1998, when Republicans ran the show.

So is Pocan looking forward to the coming session? "Ninety percent yes, 10% no," he says.

The 90%: "We've finally got a chance to be in the majority" - controlling the Legislature and the governor's mansion for the first time since 1986. "We can finally, with the Senate and the governor, pass some good legislation.

"The 10% is, now that I've put my time in on Joint Finance, hoping to at some point get exactly what I got, we're facing a $5.4 billion deficit."

That deficit seems certain to stall significant parts of the Democratic agenda in the next couple of years, crowding out big-ticket items from the progressive wish list.

So, don't expect the Democrats to pass their ambitious Healthy Wisconsin program mandating universal health insurance coverage. "It is really almost impossible for us right now to even look at that type of sweeping health care reform," says departing state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Whitefish Bay), a physician and key proponent of the plan.

On other issues, the notion that bringing Democrats to power will end gridlock may prove illusory.

Bill Kraus, a moderate Republican who has long backed measures to boost public funding of campaigns and require greater disclosure of outside money spent to elect candidates, is wary about the prospects for long-promised reform.

"My history has been one of high expectations and low fulfillment," says Kraus, a former aide to Republican Gov. Lee Dreyfus. Democrats and Republicans alike have failed him, so Kraus is keeping his expectations in check.

Late last year, as the state's budget deficit became public, Gov. Jim Doyle talked down plans to revive the health-care overhaul. The guv pointed out that, between the Democratic gains in Congress and victory of President-elect Barack Obama on a promise to make health care reform a national priority, the state may be off the hook, at least for now.

That's a spin we could see more of: Wisconsin doesn't have to address longstanding issues because the ball is now in Washington's court.

But a number of state Democrats won election by linking Republican opponents to a do-nothing, GOP-controlled Assembly. What goes around comes around, unless the new bosses can prove they can govern as well as they campaign.

Expect Democrats to reach first for low-hanging fruit, passing long-stalled initiatives to put a progressive stamp on state policy without burdening the state treasury. "Policy issues that don't cost money are going to be advanced very quickly," predicts Wasserman, who narrowly lost his bid to unseat Republican state Sen. Alberta Darling.

And while the soon-to-be-born Obama administration may get state Democrats off the hook on some issues like health care, skilled leadership will be needed for Wisconsin to capitalize on the president elect's agenda.

Incoming Majority Leader Tom Nelson (D-Kaukauna) and Assembly Speaker-designate Mike Sheridan (D-Janesville) met in Washington late last year with Obama's transition team as it was formulating plans for its massive federal economic stimulus package. Nelson is hopeful that Obama's plan could relieve some of the pressure on the state's deficit.

"It is clear," says Nelson, "that a significant part of that package will include critical road and bridge and waterway projects as well as investment in education and health care." Wisconsin must make sure it "is prepared to receive those investments."

Perhaps as urgent a question as what the Democrats will do is how they'll do it. In that respect, the Legislature's two houses seem to be taking a different tack. While Senate Democrats put largely experienced members in leadership posts for the coming session, the Assembly opted for fresh faces. That's in part because the lower house has more fresh blood to draw on.

"More than half the Democrats in the Assembly have been here four years or fewer," says Spencer Black (D-Madison), a past minority leader who could have laid legitimate claim to a senior leadership post. "I think it's good that many of our leaders are not the old guard."

Black says that, during the years that they controlled the Assembly, Republicans favored hard-nosed partisan tactics and "were often very vindictive against Democrats." One former speaker, John Gard, even cut the number of staff positions allowed for each Democratic legislator. (The move was ultimately rescinded.)

Gard's successor, Mike Huebsch, "did change the tone somewhat, to his credit," Black allows. Still, he says Huebsch dug in his heels during budget talks in 2007, blocking such Democratic initiatives as a surtax on oil companies, a special hospital tax, and the Healthy Wisconsin proposal. The budget passed nearly four months late, a dubious national record.

Wasserman predicts budgets will pass much more easily with the governor and both houses of the Legislature all coming from the same party.

"You're going to have the individual leadership of both houses working with the governor behind the scenes," he says. While Democrats won't just rubber-stamp the next Doyle budget, "you will have a product that's pretty well finished when it comes out of the governor's office. That is a huge change from previous years."

And will Democrats seek to freeze out Republicans the way they believe they were frozen out?

Black doesn't think so. "What I'd like to see is Democrats be very strong in terms of our program and what we achieve," he says. "But stylistically I would hope we wouldn't be as partisan and, sometimes, quite frankly, as nasty as the Republicans were."

Way to set a less partisan tone!

GOP leaders didn't respond to several requests for comment. But a press release issued early last month by Rep. Steve Nass (R-Whitewater) suggests the sniping isn't stopping anytime soon.

Nass blasted Democratic Sen. Spencer Coggs for unveiling an "extremist liberal agenda" that included mandatory housing aid for low-income families and expanding state requirements to buy from minority-owned businesses.

"Voters don't want Wisconsin turned into the San Francisco of the Midwest," Nass declared.

Nelson, meanwhile, warns his fellow Democrats not to get cocky about their recent win.

"I don't so much interpret last November's election results as a vindication of Democratic principles, but as a wholesale rejection of partisan politics," says Nelson. "And Democrats happen to be the party that has been given the help lead this state in a new era of politics."

For many in Madison, the choice of relative newcomer Mike Sheridan as speaker is one sign that the Dems really do want to change how things are done. Sheridan, a former United Auto Workers chief at the General Motors plant in Janesville, vows to draw on his background in collaborative labor relations to work with the GOP opposition.

Already, Sheridan has impressed others by building a rapport with colleagues from both parties. Says Wasserman, "He brings an easygoing style of inclusiveness to the table."

Sheridan gives a concrete example, saying he deviated from past practice in declining to "turn the building upside down and throw the other party out of their offices" when control of the Assembly switched parties. This, he adds, also saved the state many thousands of dollars.

So is a new era of bipartisanship about to dawn? Bill Kraus, for one, is skeptical.

"If you want to see the minority leaders of either party, walk in, because they're not busy," he says. "This is the majority's game, and everybody knows it. That's why they fight to get in the majority."

The Democrats' to-do list
Key items on the majority party's agenda:

  • Plug the state's $5.4 billion budget gap. Expect this to dominate the opening weeks of the 2009 legislative session. It will require a mix of painful spending cuts and new revenue streams, likely including increased fees and taxes.
  • Expand health-care availability. While sweeping programs like the Healthy Wisconsin plan are unlikely, the Dems do see opportunities for more incremental measures. Already, the state is blending the BadgerCare health insurance program for the poor with county medical assistance programs so childless adults can get coverage under BadgerCare.
  • Make meds more affordable. One key component, which won't cost the state much, if anything, is to roll back the state's minimum markup law for drugs. This will allow chain stores like Wal-Mart to implement programs they've introduced elsewhere selling generic drugs at deeply discounted prices.
  • Stand up to outsourcing. The Dems hope to cut off state contracts with "companies that ship jobs overseas," as a Democratic list of talking points puts it. A bill to do this passed the Senate unanimously in the last session and failed along party lines in the Assembly.
  • Boost the minimum wage. This is a priority of Senate Majority Leader Russ Decker, who has introduced a bill to boast the state minimum wage from $6.50 today to $7.60 in June, indexing it to inflation thereafter.
  • Stimulate the economy. This includes a proposal to boost job training through the Wisconsin Manufacturing Extension Partnership and another offering tax credits for green-energy development. But such initiatives may be difficult given the state's need to make deep cuts to balance its budget.

Leaders of the legislature

Mike Sheridan, Assembly Speaker

Age: 50

Background: Elected to Assembly 2004; former president, United Auto Workers Local 95.

Despite his short tenure in the Legislature - just four years - Sheridan has earned the respect and friendship of more senior members. He pledges to work cooperatively with Republicans as well.

"My goal is, we reach across party lines. I'm hoping my Republican colleagues will work with us," Sheridan says. "When I was in the union we worked with the company. That's the only way we could get things done."

But Sheridan vows not to shy away from confrontation if circumstances require it - another lesson from Local 95, which represents workers at a number of shops besides the GM plant. "There were companies that just refused to work together. They wanted to fight," he says. "We can do it both ways."

Tom Nelson, Assembly Majority Leader

Age: 32

Background: Elected to Assembly 2004; former technical college teacher and political consultant.

Nelson, who edged out Milwaukee Rep. Pedro Colon for the majority leader's post, is known for his tenacity.

In his three Assembly races, he reckons he's knocked on 84,000 doors. And he went door-to-door for some 20 Assembly candidates starting last summer. "Tom Nelson is a worker," says one colleague.

He can also be aggressive, with a flair for the dramatic. notes that when Nelson first ran in 2004 against incumbent Republican Becky Weber, he threatened to sue Weber over campaign ads he charged were false. And in the summer of 2007 Nelson drew national notice with a five-day "sleep-in" at his desk to protest the state's budget impasse.

Jeff Fitzgerald, Assembly Minority Leader

Age: 42

Background: Elected to Assembly 2000; former Beaver Dam city council member; former Chicago Mercantile Exchange futures trader.

Fitzgerald, majority leader in the last session, owes his new title to former Speaker Mike Huebsch's decision not to seek the minority leader's post. He also successfully fended off a challenge from Scott Newcomer (R-Hartland), who sought the post promising to take "a new direction."

Fitzgerald didn't respond to Isthmus' requests for an interview, but Democrat Spencer Black characterizes the contest as one in which the "hard-line, line-in-the-sand" Fitzgerald beat a moderate.

"You're going to see a fight throughout the session between the hard right wing and the more moderate" elements of the party, Black predicts.

Russ Decker, Senate Majority Leader

Age: 55

Background: Elected to Senate 1990; former bricklayer and building trades union leader.

Decker was installed as majority leader in 2007, replacing Judy Robson (D-Beloit) right after the state budget passed. Along with Speaker Sheridan, Decker brings a working-class aura to the Democrats' legislative leadership, evidenced by his advocacy for a new hike in the state minimum wage.

But Decker - who didn't return Isthmus' calls - comes off as a classic political dealmaker, Democrat-style. Progressives were dismayed when Decker fast-tracked a controversial cable franchise bill that gave AT&T entrée into the cable TV marketplace while phasing out public-access requirements. Wisconsin Democracy Campaign noted that he got $23,641 in campaign cash from interests backing the bill.

Fred Risser, Senate President

Age: 81

Background: Elected to Senate 1962, after six years in the Assembly; previously held president's post 1979-1993, 1996-1998, 1999 and 2001.

A consistent voice for clean government and progressive positions, Risser is the nation's longest-serving state legislator and the fourth generation in his family to serve as a lawmaker.

But Risser's long tenure and seniority have not given him undisputed clout, much to his annoyance. He recently got the word from Majority Leader Decker that he can serve only one more year on the state Building Commission - a post Risser has held for 40 years due to his interest in architectural preservation.

Scott Fitzgerald, Senate Minority Leader

Age: 45

Background: Elected to Senate 1994; Lieutenant colonel and public affairs officer, U.S. Army Reserve.

Fitzgerald, one of the few current legislative leaders to retain his post from the last session, didn't return calls from Isthmus. But the bio on his campaign website proclaims him "one of the state's most stalwart conservative leaders." He prominently backed the state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, as well as conservative anti-tax policies. (The bio, not updated since the election, also asserts: "Under Scott's leadership, Senate Republicans are poised to pick up seats in the 2008 elections and regain control of the State Senate.")

With Fitzgerald's brother as Assembly minority leader, Republicans will likely maintain a unified front as they maneuver to fend off or co-opt Democratic initiatives.

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