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What Wisconsin Democrats Need To Do

March 13, 2017

One night last week as the winds howled I had a late dinner at my favorite Chinese restaurant.  Since the place was nearly empty and the wait staff in a relaxed and chatty mood the topic that dominates every conversation these days soon started.   Where are we now politically in this country and more importantly where are we headed?

After several minutes the question was asked about what can be done to reverse the direction we are now headed.  Without missing a beat, and with three fingers raised, I quickly stated we need to have political boundaries established by a special commission, better regulate campaign donations, and use merit selection for openings on the state’s high court.   These are the same points that are stressed over and over on this blog.  Each of them is most important if we are to provide a stronger foundation to our political institutions and allow for more faith to be felt by citizens in their government.

As if following up on that conversation there appeared this week a column offering Democrats advice, from of all places, the Op/Ed pages in The Wall Street Journal.

Democrats need a precise strategy for reversing the extreme gerrymandering that the other side has implemented in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and elsewhere. David Daley’s recent book on the topic exposes the dark but shrewd tactics Republicans used to achieve these perverse outcomes. It also explains how difficult it will be to win back state legislatures to fix redistricting.

There’s a better approach. Since 2008 voters in California, Florida and Arizona have approved independent redistricting commissions, taking authority away from gerrymandered state legislatures. Democrats must fight to get such referendums on the ballot in other states. Borrowing a page from the Republican playbook, they need this effort to be run by people who aren’t employed by the Democratic National Committee and aren’t based in Washington.

I noted among the several people engaged in the restaurant conversation on that blustery night a desire to think about ideas to make our democracy stronger.  The topic of political boundaries is not a sexy topic and surely not one that often pops up in random conversation–without someone like me (or you) to introduce it.  But when offered for pondering it does make an impression on others, and for obvious reason.  Because it is the right thing to do.

Much has been written and stated about the deep hole Wisconsin Democrats now find themselves.  Many have offered ideas for the future of my party.  But I have not heard anyone state what  must be a priority as we move forward.

Wisconsin Democrats must be willing to engage on the issues that deal with the foundations that are essential to making our government stronger.  It is not good enough to talk only of better jobs at better wages, or why continued investment in our schools is vital.  It is no longer good enough just to be Democrats, we need to also stress why being a process (small d) democrat matters.   Unless the way we elect people is based on a more equitable and level-playing field all the grand ideas we may hold about building a stronger society will be left in drafting folders on a shelf.

Elected Democrats across the state need to speak of how political boundaries are drawn with every coffee shop gathering, civic-club luncheon, and press interview.   We need only look a short distance away to see why this idea is worthy of our attention.

Since 1981 Iowa’s congressional and state legislative maps have been drawn by nonpartisan legislative staffers without considering voter registration numbers or the location of incumbents. Their main considerations are keeping districts compact and uniform in population.  And this effort has been met with bi-partisan applause.    Both the Iowa House and Senate overwhelmingly approve the maps.  The outcomes over the decades proves a healthy competitiveness between the two parties can exist on a level playing field.

The problem is that too many partisans in the Wisconsin Legislature are not able to think beyond their narrow interests, or consider the greater good when it comes to redistricting.  That certainly was the case a few years ago when there was not even the ability to have a public hearing in our statehouse about the method employed by Iowa!

Political parties have for too long used the boundaries of districts to inoculate elected officials from the need to truly compete about ideas at election time.  One of the more outstanding figures offered  over the past two years about immigration reform is that 70% of Republican congressional districts around the nation have less than 10% Hispanic/Latino voters.  In some cases that can be explained, but in many others it is due to crafty manipulation of district maps.  That type of political chicanery from both sides of the aisle creates far more problems when it comes to solving issues than perhaps anything else other than the heavy amounts of campaign money that is allowed to be raised.

Wisconsin Democrats are in the legislative minority.  But they can still be loud and focused on what can bring them out of the wilderness, and more importantly address a foundational problem in our state. 

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