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Why Elected Offices Need To Be Filled By Special Elections

March 25, 2018

It is said that power often corrupts.  But power also reveals what we need to see.

Saturday morning I read in the Wisconsin State Journal Republican lawmakers have given voice to changing when special elections must be held  in Wisconsin.  That follows last week’s court order requiring special elections be held soon for two vacant legislative seats.  The action by the Republicans was stunning to witness not only based on their aims, but the speed with which they wish to act.

At issue is the First State Senate seat which was vacated by Frank Lasee, and the 42nd Assembly seat made empty by the resignation of Keith Ripp.  Both of those seats were open in December 2017.  Had Governor Walker acted immediately, or anytime prior to January 2nd, by calling for special elections the voters could have made their selection at the Spring Election, April 3rd.  Walker, however, did not make such a decision.

But following a Dane County judge ordering special elections to be held in the coming months there has been boundless energy to be found from the legislative branch.  All at once an extraordinary session was being mentioned to take up a bill that would change the timeline for special elections.  The news from Speaker Robin Vos is remarkable since only recently he had made it clear his members would not return to work further with the Senate on state issues, such as the controversy with the Department of Corrections and Lincoln Hills.

But with the fear voters might have a say about the issues of the day in two elective districts there was no time to waste.  Even Walker, who is known for not saying how he will act should a particular piece of legislation arrive on his desk, was gleeful to announce he would love to sign a bill–even though there is no language or ideas yet put to paper.

The argument used by Republicans is that these special elections are a waste of taxpayer money, and since session floor time is over there is no need for an elected person to hold office in those two districts. As a Research Assistant for a decade to a state assemblyman I could not disagree more!  The needs of the constituents do not end at the close of the business day or upon an elected official taking a higher paying job.

One of the most emotional cases I handled in my years at the Capitol–and which makes my point as to why elected offices need to be filled–was when a mother called with the news her father was extremely sick and soon would pass away.   Her son, who had a very close relationship with his grandfather, had just started basic training with the military in a southern state.  Based on what was then defined as ‘immediate family’ the young man was not being allowed to return home for a short period of time.    So our office was asked to intervene.

The number of calls I placed to work through the military bureaucracy would have carried no weight, whatsoever, if I had not been able to alert the person on the line I was calling from a State Representative’s office.   The young man made it home in time to see his loved one, and able to stay through the funeral.  The kindest letter ever to come into our office during the years I worked for Lary Swoboda was penned by that mother.  Not for one moment should there be any foundation given to the idea that an empty elected office in the statehouse does not matter—or too costly to fill.

On Saturday night I read a quote from 61 years ago that struck me as perfectly aligned with the artivcle from the front page of my morning newspaper.  Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson stood in the chamber as the last speaker before the vote on the 1957 Civil Rights legislation.  One of his lines from the senate floor that evening was, “There are people who are still more  interested in securing votes than in securing the right to vote.” (Master Of The Senate, Robert Caro, page 1011)

I would hope that the opinion expressed above would be embraced by everyone who reads it, as I can not fathom how anyone who cares for democracy, or values the rights of citizens could disagree.  We certainly can disagree on a wide array of policy items which our state faces, but I would deeply hope that on the foundations of our democracy we stand shoulder-to-shoulder.  These special elections are such a case for rising above the political angst which grips, and too often, rips away common sense and decency.

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