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Thursday, October 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 48.0° F  Overcast
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Why I work with Republicans: Mark Pocan is determined to get things done in Congress
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Credit:Linda Zastrow

On an overcast April afternoon, Mark Pocan fields questions in the council chambers of Reedsburg's city hall.

The group is small, barely more than a dozen. It skews decidedly older, with most easily over 60. It makes sense: Today's listening session for Wisconsin's 2nd Congressional District is at 1 p.m., when retirees are about the only voting-age people who don't have somewhere else to be.

It's a mostly friendly crowd. One man wears a pin that declares, "Corporations are not people."

When Pocan takes the floor, he gets down to business, summarizing the state of play in Washington, D.C., where he arrived as a freshman congressman barely 16 months before. He notes the government shutdown in October and allows that, despite flirting with government default, "there may have been some good that did come out of that."

He says it probably helped spur lawmakers to pass the first real budget in several years after repeatedly relying on stopgap resolutions to keep government agencies afloat. He voted against the measure because he said "the numbers" were not sufficient to address the "many concerns we have out there." But, he adds, "I was glad to see us using the appropriate process."

Representing Wisconsin's reliably liberal 2nd District in D.C., when the Republican majority in the House of Representatives tries to run roughshod over progressive agenda items, looks to be an exhausting, even depressing gig. But as Pocan gets ready to run for reelection, there seems little doubt that the former state representative loves his new job, frustrations and all.

He's even made the annoyances part of his shtick: "People ask what the difference is between the Legislature and Congress," he says to the Reedsburg audience. "I always say, in the Legislature sometimes things move like a tortoise. In Washington, they move like an upside down tortoise. It's a much...slower...process."

But for all the japes, Pocan, who turns 50 in August, seems to have settled in with very little difficulty. He's also begun to draw some favorable attention -- from his ideological kin and a few Republicans as well.

And he continues to show mastery of a familiar balancing act: forging relationships with legislators with whom he appears to have little in common.

"It's really tough to make a big impact when you're in the minority party in a highly partisan institution," says Dennis Dresang, professor emeritus of public affairs and political science at the UW. "Nonetheless, [Pocan] seems to be doing relatively well in terms of reaching across the aisle, making friendships and getting some alliances."

Pocan says that may well be the key to effectiveness on the job: "I take a very active role in the progressive caucus and have my values…[but] I understand fundamentally that to actually get anything done I have to have a much broader view."

There appears to be little political risk in it for Pocan. He easily bested his primary opponent, former state Rep. Kelda Helen Roys, in 2012, and he'll likely have little trouble this year with Republican challenger Peter Theron, a math instructor at Madison College. As one woman in Reedsburg approvingly tells Pocan, when he describes his work with Republicans, "You can't get anywhere if you can't talk to them."

Modest means

Pocan's late father served 12 years on the Kenosha Common Council. "I remember when I was 8 years old going door to door with him," Pocan says.

The family was of modest means. Pocan's father, Bill, ran an electronics supply store and later a sign shop. His wife, Corrinne, operated a beauty supply store.

At the time, the American Motors auto plant was by far the city's largest employer, turning out cars under the Rambler and AMC nameplates.

"Everyone knew someone who worked at 'The Motors,'" Pocan recalls. "They made Gremlins and Pacers and even the Javelin" -- car models that today live on mainly in automotive history books.

The city's economy rose and fell with the auto industry. "When American Motors was doing well, people were working," says Pocan's older brother, a Milwaukee County circuit court judge who's also named Bill. "When it wasn't, they weren't. You develop an understanding of the problems that normal people have in their lives. They lived from paycheck to paycheck, and they would ride the good times and the bad times. Those are the people we come from."

The AMC plant and its employees were deeply embedded in the city's social and political culture in another way. Hourly employees belonged to United Auto Workers Local 72, whose membership topped 14,000 in the early 1960s when Mark Pocan was born.

"It was a giant union," the congressman says. "They were very active and big players in local campaigns."

The teenage Pocan entertained as a magician at the union's holiday party and advertised his magic shows in the weekly Kenosha Labor newspaper.

After graduating from high school in 1982, Pocan headed for UW-Madison, intending to major in political science. In his introductory class, though, the focus was on the Ottoman Empire instead of political campaigns. "That was the last political science class I took," he says.

Pocan shifted to economics but eventually settled on a communications major in the journalism department, with a focus on advertising and public relations.

For a short time after graduation he worked in public relations for the Wisconsin Realtors Association, then opened his own sign and advertising shop in Madison.

Pocan won a seat on the Dane County Board in 1991 and watched the next year as his board colleague, Tammy Baldwin, moved up to the state Assembly. In 1998, Pocan won Baldwin's Assembly seat when she ran for the open 2nd District seat in Congress.

In 2012 Pocan succeeded Baldwin once again, securing her old congressional district when she defeated former Gov. Tommy Thompson to become Wisconsin's first female -- and first openly gay -- U.S. senator.

Pocan has never had to be a trailblazer when it's come to serving openly in public office. When he joined the county board, he says, "We had more openly gay and lesbian officials in Dane County than the entire state of California."

But he's still had to be something of a pioneer. When he got to D.C., Pocan applied for a spouse ID for his husband, Phil Frank, whom he married in 2006 in Canada. The ID has been a longstanding perk, granting the spouse of a representative or senator access to non-public areas of the Capitol and congressional office buildings.

A congressional security employee turned down Pocan's application, saying the ID was available only to opposite-gender couples. "I want that in writing," Pocan replied. He and Frank appealed to House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, who gave them her full support.

"It took about three months," he says, but Frank got the ID.

Influential freshman

Pocan belongs to the House Progressive Caucus and chairs the pro-gay-rights House Equality Caucus. The nonpartisan website GovTrack.us, which sorts all members of Congress on an ideological scatterplot based on their votes, puts Pocan amid a big blue cloud of Democrats on the left-hand side of the chart.

In that vein, he has taken a high-profile stance opposing a "fast track" vote on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. In granting fast-track status to the measure, Congress would agree to a straight yes or no vote, giving up any right to question or amend individual provisions in the package.

Pocan joins unions and pro-labor economists who fear the agreement will further erode the middle class, just as the North American Free Trade Agreement approved two decades ago has been blamed for doing. Pocan has "taken a leading role in rallying fellow freshman Democrats against the deal," writes the pro-labor national newspaper In These Times, which calls the proposed trade agreement "NAFTA on steroids."© Pocan has also authored a proposed amendment that would enshrine the right to vote in the U.S. Constitution, which he contends would make it more difficult for states to pass laws restricting ballot access, like Wisconsin's recently blocked photo ID bill.

Dresang notes that Pocan's current committee assignments are important ones. One is the House Budget Committee. "It's pretty incredible for a freshman to have that kind of influence on budget matters," says Dresang. Pocan's other major committee appointment, Education and Labor, is significant as well, given that UW-Madison is in his district.

But being a lawmaker is not just about policymaking. Like every member of Congress, Pocan also has to take turns at the phone, raising campaign money for his allies. It takes up the equivalent of one day a week or so -- perhaps 15% to 20% of his working hours.

"It's like going to the dentist without Novocain, or listening to the band you like least," Pocan says.

But it's a necessary evil, and Pocan does his part. "We're all expected to pitch in," he says. If there's any consolation, he adds, "the pitching-in part is less bad than doing it for yourself. Asking for money on a weekly basis is more difficult for yourself than when I'm asking for the team."

'He genuinely likes people'

Mark Pocan mixes a sincerely friendly demeanor with a bluntness that, from another pol, might border on abrasive.

Congress, he tells audiences, is "being held hostage by 30 or 40 hard-core tea party people" who have browbeaten Republican Speaker John Boehner of Ohio into surrendering his leadership authority.

He shrugs off a Reedsburg voter who asks whether the congressman might be able to persuade Gov. Scott Walker to reverse himself and accept additional federal money so the state could cover more of the working poor through Medicaid. "He's not really listening to us," Pocan says.

Yet Pocan rarely comes off as harsh, perhaps because of the way he is wired. "He genuinely likes people," Bill Pocan says of his younger brother.

The judge points out that his brother is a veteran of community theater. "He always enjoyed the stage, and he always enjoyed doing doors and just talking to people. It's just his natural personality and the way we were brought up."

These contrasting traits -- congenial but firm -- are on full display at the Reedsburg listening session, and again later in the day in Middleton. At each event audience members question him about bills that would ease the requirements for some undocumented immigrants currently in the U.S. to become citizens. The questioners suggest that even such limited and temporary measures benefiting the immigrants would hurt American workers and job-seekers.

Pocan calmly but firmly challenges the premises that underlie those assertions. "It's not like a person-for-person tradeoff," he tells one critic. After a bit more back and forth, he simply states, "we have a fundamental disagreement on the issue" and moves on.

Reflecting on the exchange in an interview later, Pocan sees no benefit in belittling a hostile questioner or trying to soften his own viewpoint. "People are going to come from different perspectives," he says. "Sometimes we get to the point where everybody can have their own opinion, but not their own set of facts."

Ideological opposites

Pocan also wants to accomplish things -- even as a member of the minority party. So he looks for potential areas of common ground.

It's that particular balance that allowed him to forge friendships with his ideological opposites.

Pocan says he came to the state Legislature in the '90s as "a bomb thrower" who took pleasure at every chance he had to rhetorically best the GOP. As fun as it was -- and as popular as it was with his partisans -- "that doesn't get any legislation passed," he says.

Being named to the Legislature's Joint Finance Committee put him in much closer, ongoing contact with GOP lawmakers. Pocan sat on the committee when it was controlled 12-4 by Republicans, split evenly between the two parties, and controlled 12-4 by Democrats.

"I went through every configuration of the committee," he says. "That's where I really learned how to get things done."

Joint Finance is where Pocan and Robin Vos -- who was first elected to the state Legislature in 2004 and is now Assembly speaker -- really got to know each other.

Their shared experiences as operators of small businesses were one point of commonality despite their ideological differences. As their friendship developed, Vos says, "I didn't give up what I believe, and I know he didn't give up what he believes. But you can still respect each other."

After Pocan's election to Congress in 2012, Vos called fellow Republicans in D.C. to encourage them to get to know their new Democratic colleague. One who took that advice seriously was Reid Ribble.

Across partisan lines

The 8th District congressman from Neenah has been assembling the "No Labels Problem Solvers," a bipartisan group of colleagues whose aim is to encourage lawmakers of both parties to get to know each other better.

"It seemed odd to me that there was no place in the American Congress" for such conversation across partisan lines, Ribble told interviewer Mike Gousha at a joint appearance with Pocan at Marquette University Law School earlier this year.

From the start the group has maintained party parity by requiring members to join in bipartisan pairs. Since joining the group, Pocan and Ribble have gotten behind two bills that both see as common sense and uncontroversial.

One would change the national budget cycle from an annual exercise to a biennial one, as it is in Wisconsin and many other states. Another would require the congressional budget office to score the cost of bills related to health care over a 40-year period rather than the usual 10 years.

Pocan sees both bills as levers to make government more effective. Two-year budgets would give lawmakers as well as the executive branch more time to review and analyze the impact of their decisions in the years between budgets.

The scoring bill would give lawmakers a longer view of how possible laws affect health care costs.

"While they may not be the sexiest sort of bills, they're fundamentally good bills for the process," Pocan says. They also, he argues, represent a way to be effective in Washington even at a time when he and the rest of his party are unlikely to pass more robust progressive legislation they'd like to see. And he believes more is possible -- if institutional forces just got out of the way.

"There is tremendous pressure to not work with people on the other side of the aisle -- to the point of absurdity," he says. After his election, he and the other House freshmen spent two weeks in Washington for training that segregated Republicans and Democrats. Pocan calls it "teaching bad behavior" from day one.

"We were separated for all but one dinner and one reception in the two weeks from each other. I know that makes leadership stronger if you don't have those other relationships, but I also think it's fundamentally bad for the institution to take it to that degree."

Gaining respect

Pocan has fulfilled an important mission for any freshman in Congress, says Dresang. "What he needs to do, especially in this first term, is to get respect, and as far as I've been able to tell he's been very successful in getting respect from both Republicans and fellow Democrats."

He's done that without reverting to bland centrism. But he's also shown no inclination to become a bomb-thrower out of frustration of being in the minority party.

"He's taking his job seriously, and he wants to do something, so he's taking a very different approach," says Dresang.

Pocan acknowledges there are limits to across-the-aisle comity. "It's a discipline working with some people," he says with a quiet laugh. "If I had to work with [U.S. Rep.] Michele Bachmann, I would be exhausted at the end of the day."

He has, he says, no illusions about the Republicans he works with, people like Ribble: "We're not going to agree about a woman's right to choose. We're not going to agree about the Affordable Care Act." But that doesn't mean they can't agree about anything, he says.

By befriending Republicans and finding opportunities to work with them, Pocan believes he proves his own point. "It just shows there are a lot of people who don't like how things operate," he says.

And when he loses on a vote -- which happens often -- or when someone in the Republican caucus comes out with a comment or proposal that Democrats find outrageous, Pocan doesn't let it get to him.

In Washington, he says, "You have to have a more patient attitude. You'll get another day and another issue. You can't dwell on what you don't have in common if you're going to get something done."


[Editor's note: This story is corrected to note that Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Neenah) represents Wisconsin's 8th congressional district.]

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