To celebrate the 100th year of the Wisconsin State Capitol a reunion of past legislators and staff who worked in the building was held last Friday. The Senate Sergeants Office orchestrated the affair and did a remarkable job. To again connect with some memories from the past made for a genuinely nice afternoon. Before I venture further with this post a Thank You needs to be extended to all those who worked to make it a success. It was a job well done.
At times a real sense of nostalgia seemed to cross the faces of those who joined again to talk and reminisce. A couple of the staffers, such as Jan Grunewald, had worked not only for many years in the building but also for numerous representatives. She said, “I worked for four legislators and they are all dead.” One could tell she wished they would again be back for an afternoon of recalling the old days.
I was struck over and over how conversations tilted back not only to recall a funny story or the memory of all-night sessions in order to pass a budget, but also included thoughts about how the rancor, rhetoric, and extreme partisanship has grown at the expense of governing. Perhaps it was best stated by former Senate Majority Leader Chuck Chvala as he extended a hand to another former legislator and said “it is so much different now.”
And it is different.
In thinking about the way attitudes and actions over the past decades have changed at the statehouse I have wondered if perhaps I am not becoming like my dad who always seemed to recall the past being somehow ‘better’. But as I talked with others Friday I sensed an acknowledgement that the process of law-making is now edgier.
When asked why that is the case a former aide to State Representative Dick Shoemaker said it all starts with how leadership acts and the tone they set. She recalled the collegiality that Minority Leader Tommy Thompson had with some Democrats over late night card games following frothy debates about legislation during the day. It was that understanding that even if one disagrees on policy does not mean opposing sides are therefore enemies.
A few months after Governor Thompson took his oath in 1987 he happened to swing by the office of State Representative Lary Swoboda. Geneva Rode and Ruth Schohl who had worked for decades in the Capitol were splitting a full-time position in the office of the assemblyman from the First District and Thompson knew each of them. (I must add it was their institutional memory and delightful stories that made my first session especially interesting. Ruth, for instance delighted in telling about the time she met Hubert Humphrey in the statehouse. She gave me a small stick pin of HHH from those days that is part of my political collection.)
I had started working in Swoboda’s office the same day Thompson took his oath and found it remarkable to then see the Governor come to our office just to trade a few pleasantries and shake hands. It was that sense of all working in the building for the folks of the state that still makes his visit most memorable to me these many years later. It really does, as the former staffer commented last Friday, start with the leadership in the capitol.
Former State Representative Randy Radtke recollected how Green Bay Assemblyman Cletus Vanderperren, who was affectionately known in the statehouse as ‘Concrete Clete’ due to his drive to see highways and roads built and repaired, always made it known in conversations that Highway 29 was in dire need of state and federal aid. My favorite memory of Cletus takes place during an all-night budget session as the large windows in the assembly parlor were opened for fresh breezes for the then un-airconditioned chamber. The representative sat in a chair near a window with assembly pages gathered around and talked of his past races and why he still worked to make sure his constituents had a voice when transportation decisions were made.
Vanderperren, and many like him, ran for office with the purpose of using the power of government to positively impact the voters back home. It seems to me too many now with resentments and a disgust with government seek office for motives that are far different from the ones which drove ‘Concrete Clete’.
So how does our state governing process become less bitter and more conducive to dealing with the issues that face the citizenry?
Perhaps it is time to turn to the former leaders of this state–in a bi-partisan fashion–and have them brainstorm about what might be done to again fashion a working coalition for state politics. The goal of having the common good once again be central to policy making should not just be a throw away line. It should be what we strive for in Madison. Bring former Assembly Speakers Tom Loftus and John Gard, former governors Tommy Thompson and Tony Earl, and former state senators Dale Schultz and Tim Cullen along with others together to put forth a blueprint on how collegiality can again lead us in our politics. Get the editors of our state papers engaged in writing articles and OP-ED pieces so to then enlist the voters of the state to step up and also demand changes.
I truly feel blessed to have been a part of the process that played out in the state assembly. I am a better person for having learned much from those whom I was able to interact with over those years. I still have faith in our governing institutions. But I know we must do better at tamping down what divides us when it comes to governing and seek ways to compromise from all sides.
Working as colleagues in a fair and open-oriented process of governing will produce good policy, renew the electorate’s faith in government along with those elected to serve, and shine a light on Wisconsin as an example of how the values and ideals we share are still alive.
If we try we can do it.