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Sen. Mark Miller on a Dem takeover of the Wisconsin Senate and recall of Gov. Walker
'I'm doing everything I can to win'
Miller: 'If I'm majority leader, it rests on my shoulders to restore respect for the role of the minority in the legislative institution.'
Miller: 'If I'm majority leader, it rests on my shoulders to restore respect for the role of the minority in the legislative institution.'
Credit:Amber Solow

Sen. Mark Miller (D-Monona) was relaxing in his office during the March break from the most tumultuous legislative session in Wisconsin history.

A session that began with Gov. Scott Walker dropping his "bomb" to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers and continued with Miller, the Senate minority leader, leading his 13 Democratic colleagues on a wild ride across the Illinois border to delay passage of the bill. Now, after battling what he describes as the Republican legislative "threshing machine" - a nonstop barrage of pro-corporate, anti-democratic legislation, rammed through with robotic efficiency - Miller finds himself co-leader in an evenly divided Senate, thanks to the recent resignation of Republican Sen. Pam Galloway.

"What it means is that we can unilaterally stop things, but we can't start anything," Miller explains. "Sen. [Scott] Fitzgerald and I have to agree to bring anything up."

For the time being, not much is happening anyway, since the Legislature is out of session.

But Miller is glad to throw some sand in the gears. For example, he contacted the law firm Michael, Best & Friedrich recently to point out that the whole Senate - not just the Republicans - are the firm's clients, and to request all records of the firm's highly contentious and secretive work on redistricting.

Miller says he is optimistic about winning a Democratic majority, as he travels the state to support Democrats who are running in the next round of recall elections.

"It's really in the hands of the voters this summer," he says. "Rarely has there been an election with such a clear choice."

That choice, as he sees it, is between "corporate control of the state or popular control."

"There has been an incredible transfer of wealth and power over the last two years," Miller says. "One of the transfers right here in Wisconsin was to raise taxes on low-income workers while lowering taxes on corporations."

If the Democrats take over the Senate and recall Walker, Miller has a list of priorities he hopes to pursue:

"At the top of the list is restoring workers' rights. It's unconscionable. Wisconsin has the longest tradition of public employees' right to bargain of any state in the union," he says.

Also on the list: restoring funding for education, reversing the job-loss record that led the Bureau of Labor Statistics to rank Wisconsin worst in the nation for job loss from January 2011 to January 2012, putting people back to work and restoring integrity to elections.

"People don't trust that their vote counts. That's fundamental to faith in democracy," he says. "If you feel subverted by a county clerk or an electronic voting system - that's where the real abuse occurs." Dubious administration of elections, not voter fraud, is the real issue, Miller says.

Miller and his Democratic colleagues were deeply moved by the massive demonstrations, and the huge volunteer effort to gather signatures for the recalls, he says. He sees, in the movement against Walker, the determination of ordinary Wisconsinites to take back their government.

"A real sense of teamwork has emerged in that we're part of a larger movement and doing everything we can to support it," he says.

Part of that sense of teamwork is a result of Miller's leadership, say members of his caucus.

"Mark Miller was the only one who could have held us together for three weeks out of state," says Sen. Fred Risser (D-Madison), the longest-serving member of the Senate, who joined Miller and the rest of the Democratic senators in Illinois. "I give him full credit. We had very different viewpoints, different districts, different home situations - one of our ladies was pregnant, some are younger, some are older. I think the untold story of the whole episode was keeping those divergent people together."

Building consensus in his caucus is something Miller takes pride in. He says he learned how to do it during his 29 years as a military pilot in the National Guard. "I was trained to listen to people who worked for you, get advice, and not to grab all of the decision-making power in the commander's hands," he says.

If the Democrats retake the Senate, and Miller is chosen by his caucus to be majority leader, he hopes to reach across the aisle and bring the parties together, too.

"If I'm majority leader, it rests on my shoulders to restore respect for the role of the minority in the legislative institution," he says.

That means building trust, and doing away with strategies employed by the Republican leadership, like springing surprises on the other side, and using paper ballots instead of holding open hearings.

Miller worked on a civility project back in 2002 to restore better working relationships in the state Legislature that brought together equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats interested in fostering a more productive and collegial atmosphere in the Capitol.

Such an effort seems almost unimaginable today.

"Unfortunately, many of the Republicans that were interested are no longer here," Miller concedes.

"There are forces outside the building that pull us apart," he adds, including right-wing talk radio, Fox News and the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national coalition of corporations and Republican state legislators that pushes boilerplate legislation in all the states.

"The right is much more adamant that you cannot break ranks," Miller says. "Compromise is viewed as a traitorous act. As long as elements out there are making that claim, it's hard for even the best-hearted people to find common ground."

But Miller still holds out hope for a return to a more civil, public-spirited Legislature.

"I've been here long enough to believe there is a public-service motivation in people that are here - you've got to find a way to tap into that," he says.

Over the last year, Miller says, he has often thought about his late mother, the legendary Wisconsin Assemblywoman Midge Miller, whose early support for Eugene McCarthy and activism for peace and women's rights helped change the course of national politics. "She'd been concerned for a long time about our people-centered democracy moving to corporate control and wealth control," he says. "She would have been really excited to see what was happening in Wisconsin - the movement to restore our democracy."

As for what happens if that movement does not succeed in this summer's recall effort - Miller won't go there.

"I'm doing everything I can to win, and I think the cause we're fighting for is one the majority of people in Wisconsin share," he says. "It would be too discouraging if that wasn't the case."

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